When you stir a cup of tea, the surface of the rotating liquid develops a dip in the middle. The faster you stir, the deeper the dip. But the liquid surface is quite uneven; to get a smooth surface, throw the spoon away and spin the whole cup continuously. Once the liquid inside has caught up with the cup, and everything is turning at the same speed, the liquid surface forms a beautiful smooth curve known as a paraboloid of revolution.

Sarah McLeary and I are applying this idea to make thin paraboloidal plaster shells. We spin a bucket on a potter’s wheel (Sarah is a potter), and pour plaster into it. The plaster rapidly flows until its surface forms a deep paraboloidal curve, and then sets. We now use this cast, still spinning, as a mould, and cast a thin layer of plaster inside it, to make a paraboloidal shell.

That’s our first attempt above. It’s about 20 cm across and 3 mm thick. It might look like a part of a sphere, but in a profile view it’s easy to see that the curvature is tightest at the base and gradually decreases up the sides, as you’d expect for a paraboloid.

I love the fact that we didn’t decide what shape this shell was going to be: physics did.

There’s lots of experimentation ahead. When we’ve got the hang of it, I’ll explain our methods in more detail. But as this picture of our third attempt shows, we haven’t quite cracked it yet.

Last week I was on holiday in Wales. It wasn’t the driest of weeks, and while I was inside not climbing mountains, I finally got round to doing some mountain-related geometry that I’ve been putting off for the last 30 years or so. It’s about knowing how high you are.

If you’re climbing or descending a mountain, you sometimes want to know roughly how far (vertically) there is still to go. One way to get an idea of your altitude is to use nearby peaks or other points of known altitude as reference points. But how do you judge whether you are above or below another point? It’s not always obvious, and without some sort of rule, the worry is that you’ll make optimistic judgements, leading to disappointment in the long run.

My friend Malcolm once told me that, as a rule of thumb, you should look at the reference point relative to the distant skyline. If the point appears to be above the skyline, you are lower than it, and if it appears to be below the skyline, you are higher than it. I’ve used this skyline-rule ever since, but I’ve never checked how accurate it is.

The fact that there’s any doubt about the rule is because the Earth is not flat. If it was flat, then your line of sight to the (infinitely distant) sea-level horizon would be exactly horizontal, and the rule would work perfectly. If the skyline was made up of mountains, the rule would work perfectly as long as they were as high as your reference point.

But the Earth isn’t flat: it’s a big ball. How does this affect the accuracy of the rule? I used a wet Welsh Wednesday afternoon to find out.

It turns out that the rule is good enough for general hillwalking purposes as long as the reference point is no more than two or three kilometres away (as it usually will be). The errors are smaller if the skyline is distant mountains rather than the horizon at sea level. The rule consistently underestimates your altitude, which, in ascent at least, is probably better than the alternative. Continue reading How high am I ?

In a previous post I showed some examples of irregular polyhedra that I’ve been making out of paper. These polyhedra were all based on points distributed quasi-randomly over a sphere. At each point, my program placed a plane tangent to the sphere. The result of the intersection of all of those planes was an irregular polyhedron.

The 47-hedron in the picture above was made in a rather different way. It’s certainly irregular, but the process that created it was not at all random. As in the previous polyhedra, the starting point was a sphere with a number of points distributed over it. But this time, the points were placed according to a simple and perfectly regular rule.

Imagine you you draw a line from one pole of a sphere to the opposite pole, winding sort-of-helically around the sphere. Then place a number of points at exactly equal spacings along this line. In the examples below, there are 43 points.

If your quasi-helix had 2.5 turns, the result would look like the diagram on the right. The numbers are where the points are placed on the imaginary sphere; the resulting polyhedron is also drawn. The helical structure is very clear, but notice the irregularity of the faces: for example, the lower edges of faces 26, 27, and 28 are all different. This is because the radius of the quasi-helix is not constant, so turns of the helix near the poles will have fewer faces on them than turns near the equator, which means that the way the numbers on one turn line up with the numbers on the previous and subsequent turns keeps changing.

If we increase the number of turns in the quasi-helix to 5, the helical structure is still clear:With 7.5 turns in the quasi-helix (below), adjacent-numbered faces are now so far apart that the faces on the turns above and below them are starting to intrude into the spaces between them. See, for example, how faces 27 and 28 are almost pushed apart by faces 19 and 35.By the time we have 10 turns (below), consecutively-numbered faces are so far apart that faces from the turns above and below often meet between them, making the helical structure hard to discern (see, for example, how faces 34 and 22 squeeze in between faces 28 and 29). The polyhedron is beginning to look quite irregular, but note that consecutively-numbered faces are still more similar to each other than they are to the other faces.

The 47-hedron on the right (same as at the top of the post) was based on a quasi-helix with about 12.5 turns. At first sight, it looks quite random, and it’s certainly irregular, but there are still visible similarities between faces if you look hard enough. Compare, for example, the mid-blue and light-blue faces at roughly 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock respectively. And what about the dark-blue and very dark-blue faces just below the centre? One looks suspiciously like a rotated version of the other – and it is! In fact the whole polyhedron has an axis of 180° rotational symmetry. This suprised me when I spotted it, but it shouldn’t have. A helix has 180° rotational symmetry (turn a corkscrew upside down and it looks the same) so it’s inevitable that shapes based on a helix will have that symmetry also.

It’s a remarkable fact that there are only five regular convex polyhedra, that is, solid shapes whose flat faces are all identical regular polygons. The most familiar example is the cube, with 6 identical square faces. There are other, less regular but still orderly polyhedra, such as the truncated icosahedron, seen in a bloated form in some footballs.

But what, I wondered, about truly irregular polyhedra, where every face is a different irregular polygon? What would they look like? Last January I set out to make some and find out.

My irregular polyhedra are all based on spheres. Imagine placing a number of dots on a sphere. At each dot, let there be a plane just touching the sphere. These planes will all intersect each other, and if we remove the parts of each plane cut off by the neighbouring planes, we’re left with a polyhedron, with one face for each dot that we placed on the sphere. The nature of this polyhedron depends upon how the points are distributed over the sphere. In the polyhedra shown here, the placement of dots was random but subject to certain constraints.

I wrote some software that allowed me to choose how many faces I wanted, and to regulate how evenly spread over the sphere the dots were. I could preview the resulting polyhedron, and when I saw one that I liked, the program produced a set of images of the faces of the polyhedron, with numbered tabs on them. Then all I had to do was print them, cut them out, fold the tabs, and glue them all together. This is not a task for the impatient: the 83-hedron at the top took about 3 days.

The polyhedra shown here differ principally in how evenly the dots were spread over the imaginary internal sphere. After randomly placing the dots, the program simulated repulsion between them (as if they were electric charges). The longer this repulsion process went on, the more evenly distributed the dots became. For the 29-hedron, no repulsion process was done, and for the 43-hedron, the process was allowed to continue until the dots stopped moving; presumably this is now (in some undefined sense) as regular as a 43-hedron can get.

For the 29-hedron (right), I took advantage of the four-colour map theorem, which tells me that if I want to colour the faces such that no two neighbouring faces have the same shade, 4 shades of card are all I need. I leave it to you to convince yourself that if this theorem is true for flat maps, it must be true for maps on balls too. (If you don’t see where maps come into it, think of each face of the polyhedron as a country on a political map.)

None of this would have happened had it not been for a visit to Jenny Dockett to talk about her Illuminating Geometry project. It was while talking to Jenny that the idea for making irregular polyhedra came to me.

I wrote the software in Python. The internally-illuminated shapes are made out of layout paper (very thin paper), and the 29-hedron is made of thin card. I used UHU Office Pen glue (not to be confused with UHU Pen glue). This glue doesn’t wrinkle the thin paper, and dries at about the right speed, but has proved to be somewhat unreliable in humid weather.