Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Fascinating article from today's New York Times. In 2-dimensions we talk about tessellating objects to fill the plane. Circles of course will always leave gaps. In 3-dimensions, equal spheres will also leave gaps when packed as closely as possible, but the question then becomes, "How do we arrange the spheres which would result in the densest packing. Turns out that the grocer's method of stacking oranges solves that problem! Equal cubes can be packed together without any gaps, so we can say that the densest packing for cubes is 100%, that is, identical cubes can be packed so that they use 100% of the available space.
But packing regular tetrahedrons (a pyramid whose 4 faces are congruent equilateral triangles) as tightly as possible has defied the best logical mathematical minds, including Aristotle's, for nearly 2000 years. Recently, significant strides have been made, not only by the best mathematical and scientific minds, but also by graduate students, like Ann Chen from U. of Mich.,, who have taken dozens of tetrahedral dice from Dungeons and Dragons games and are using a hands-on approach to build various configurations and then computing the density of the packing. For the past several months teams from different schools have published their latest and best attempts, but, as of this moment, Ann has found the densest packing at 85.63%. That's right, she's outdone the best theoretical mathematicians and scientists in this quest for the new Holy Grail of packing problems. Aristotle mistakenly asserted that there exists a perfect 100% packing for tetrahedrons, but this was shown to be false. Now it appears that the percent is far more than we thought. Professor Nash, we need you!
I strongly believe that there is a place for this kind of discussion in our math classes from the earliest years on. Let students know that solving mathematical problems often involves hands-on experimentation as in science! Besides, who's to say that there isn't some middle schooler out there right now who might sit in her room playing with these dice who will arrive at 86%!!
"All Truth passes through Three Stages: First, it is Ridiculed...
Second, it is Violently Opposed...
Third, it is Accepted as being Self-Evident."
- Arthur Schopenhauer (1778-1860)