Monday, 21 April 2014

Rotationally symmetric Venn diagrams

No doubt you will have seen a Venn diagram. They are a wonderful way of presenting logical information. For example, they allow us to illustrate the fact that centaurs lie in the union of objects with male torsos and horse legs (Figure 1).
 Figure 1. Not all male torsos are connected to horse legs and vice versa. However, we see that centaurs do lie in the intersection.
Recently there has been an upsurge in using Venn diagrams as way of illustrating jokes, or song titles. My personal favourite explains where the platypus fits in the animal kingdom (Figure 2).
 Figure 2. Although not scientifically sound it does show that the keyboard guitar and platypus can be defined as the intersection of two other sets.
Of course you are not restricted to two sets of objects. A Venn diagram can be made of any number of sets. For example Figure 3 illustrates the some of the lyrics from the song “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band.
 Figure 3. A seven set intersection diagram illustrating the characteristics of certain famous people.
Technically, Figure 3 illustrates an Euler diagram and not a Venn diagram. A Venn diagram contains every single possible intersection between all combinations of the sets, whereas an Euler diagram only shows the intersections you are interested in. For example, in Figure 3 there is no section where only grinners and jokers intersect (this could possible contain Heath Ledger).

When dealing with two or three sets the obvious Euler diagram is also a Venn diagram (Figure 4). Interestingly, they both also have rotational symmetry. This will be considered in more detail in the next article.
 Figure 4. Two and three set Venn diagrams.
However, when we get to four circles, things are not so easy anymore and the basic Euler diagram (Figure 5, left) is no longer a Venn diagram. However, by removing the restriction that the groups have to be circles we can once again produce a four set Venn diagram (Figure 5, right). Sadly though, we have lost the pleasing rotational symmetry.
 Figure 5. If only circular shapes are used we cannot create a Venn diagram, only an Euler diagram (left). However, by generalizing the set's shape, we can produce a Venn diagram once more (right).
Next time I will present another part of the discussion with Barry Cipra and we will see under what conditions Venn diagrams can have rotational symmetry.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Sol LeWitt Solution

Last time I introduced the Sol LeWitt’s problem, devised by the eminent mathematical reporter Barry Cipra. The challenge was to take the tiles, as presented in the left image of Figure 1 and rearrange them such that all the lines form continuous rows, columns and diagonals across the grid. As I revealed there are many solutions, one such solution is presented in the right image of Figure 1.
 Figure 1. Left: the original Sol LeWitt tiles. Right: an arrangement in which all lines cross the entire grid.
I also mentioned that there were some special relationships between certain solutions. For example rotating a solution through 90 degrees, reflecting it, or performing a combination of these two operations generates another, related solution. Furthermore, we can take the topmost row (or the leftmost column) and moving it all the way to the bottom (or to the right). Explicitly, a set of solutions can be drawn on the surface of a torus.

This leaves us with a new question. Are there any solutions which cannot be generated in such a way? Namely, starting from one solution are their other “distinct” solutions, which cannot be created through rotations, reflections or row/column operations. Each distinct solution will then generate a different solution set, which will lead to different to tori.

The famous mathematician John Conway demonstrated that there are actually three distinct solutions, from which all others can be derived. One has been given above. Can you find the other two possible distinct solutions?

As I was talking to Barry about this puzzle he told me a nice anecdote, where he had used this puzzle in a workshop involving maths teachers and maths researchers that had been paired together. He said that the teachers were constantly moving the pieces around, effectively using trial and error, whilst their researcher partner would sit back and think about the pieces. Eventually, one researcher claimed that the puzzle was impossible, not a moment later his partner produced a working solution! Let this be a lesson to any mathematician. Theory is all well and good, but practical intuition is invaluable.