Reading the Comics, March 16, 2021: Where Is A Tetrahedron’s Centroid Edition

Comic Strip Master Command has not, to appearances, been distressed by my Reading the Comics hiatus. There are still mathematically-themed comic strips. Many of them are about story problems and kids not doing them. Some get into a mathematical concept. One that ran last week caught my imagination so I’ll give it some time here. This and other Reading the Comics essays I have at this link, and I figure to resume posting them, at least sometimes.

Ben Zaehringer’s In The Bleachers for the 16th of March, 2021 is an anthropomorphized-geometry joke. Here the centroid stands in for “the waist”, the height below which boxers may not punch.

In a boxing ring. Facing off and wearing boxing gloves are a tetrahedron and a cube. The umpire, a sphere, says into the microphone, 'And remember: nothing below the centroid.'
Ben Zaehringer’s In The Bleachers for the 16th of March, 2021. This and other essays featuring In The Bleachers are gathered at this link. There haven’t been many, so far. One of the few appearances was another boxing joke, though.

The centroid is good geometry, something which turns up in plane and solid shapes. It’s a center of the shape: the arithmetic mean of all the points in the shape. (There are other things that can, with reason, be called a center too. Mathworld mentions the existence of 2,001 things that can be called the “center” of a triangle. It must be only a lack of interest that’s kept people from identifying even more centers for solid shapes.) It’s the center of mass, if the shape is a homogenous block. Balance the shape from below this centroid and it stays balanced.

For a complicated shape, finding the centroid is a challenge worthy of calculus. For these shapes, though? The sphere, the cube, the regular tetrahedron? We can work those out by reason. And, along the way, work out whether this rule gives an advantage to either boxer.

The sphere first. That’s the easiest. The centroid has to be the center of the sphere. Like, the point that the surface of the sphere is a fixed radius from. This is so obvious it takes a moment to think why it’s obvious. “Why” is a treacherous question for mathematics facts; why should 4 divide 8? But sometimes we can find answers that give us insight into other questions.

Here, the “why” I like is symmetry. Look at a sphere. Suppose it lacks markings. There’s none of the referee’s face or bow tie here. Imagine then rotating the sphere some amount. Can you see any difference? You shouldn’t be able to. So, in doing that rotation, the centroid can’t have moved. If it had moved, you’d be able to tell the difference. The rotated sphere would be off-balance. The only place inside the sphere that doesn’t move when the sphere is rotated is the center.

This symmetry consideration helps answer where the cube’s centroid is. That also has to be the center of the cube. That is, halfway between the top and bottom, halfway between the front and back, halfway between the left and right. Symmetry again. Take the cube and stand it upside-down; does it look any different? No, so, the centroid can’t be any closer to the top than it can the bottom. Similarly, rotate it 180 degrees without taking it off the mat. The rotation leaves the cube looking the same. So this rules out the centroid being closer to the front than to the back. It also rules out the centroid being closer to the left end than to the right. It has to be dead center in the cube.

Now to the regular tetrahedron. Obviously the centroid is … all right, now we have issues. Dead center is … where? We can tell when the regular tetrahedron’s turned upside-down. Also when it’s turned 90 or 180 degrees.

Symmetry will guide us. We can say some things about it. Each face of the regular tetrahedron is an equilateral triangle. The centroid has to be along the altitude. That is, the vertical line connecting the point on top of the pyramid with the equilateral triangle base, down on the mat. Imagine looking down on the shape from above, and rotating the shape 120 or 240 degrees if you’re still not convinced.

And! We can tip the regular tetrahedron over, and put another of its faces down on the mat. The shape looks the same once we’ve done that. So the centroid has to be along the altitude between the new highest point and the equilateral triangle that’s now the base, down on the mat. We can do that for each of the four sides. That tells us the centroid has to be at the intersection of these four altitudes. More, that the centroid has to be exactly the same distance to each of the four vertices of the regular tetrahedron. Or, if you feel a little fancier, that it’s exactly the same distance to the centers of each of the four faces.

It would be nice to know where along this altitude this intersection is, though. We can work it out by algebra. It’s no challenge to figure out the Cartesian coordinates for a good regular tetrahedron. Then finding the point that’s got the right distance is easy. (Set the base triangle in the xy plane. Center it, so the coordinates of the highest point are (0, 0, h) for some number h. Set one of the other vertices so it’s in the xz plane, that is, at coordinates (0, b, 0) for some b. Then find the c so that (0, 0, c) is exactly as far from (0, 0, h) as it is from (0, b, 0).) But algebra is such a mass of calculation. Can we do it by reason instead?

That I ask the question answers it. That I preceded the question with talk about symmetry answers how to reason it. The trick is that we can divide the regular tetrahedron into four smaller tetrahedrons. These smaller tetrahedrons aren’t regular; they’re not the Platonic solid. But they are still tetrahedrons. The little tetrahedron has as its base one of the equilateral triangles that’s the bigger shape’s face. The little tetrahedron has as its fourth vertex the centroid of the bigger shape. Draw in the edges, and the faces, like you’d imagine. Three edges, each connecting one of the base triangle’s vertices to the centroid. The faces have two of these new edges plus one of the base triangle’s edges.

The four little tetrahedrons have to all be congruent. Symmetry again; tip the big tetrahedron onto a different face and you can’t see a difference. So we’ll know, for example, all four little tetrahedrons have the same volume. The same altitude, too. The centroid is the same distance to each of the regular tetrahedron’s faces. And the four little tetrahedrons, together, have the same volume as the original regular tetrahedron.

What is the volume of a tetrahedron?

If we remember dimensional analysis we may expect the volume should be a constant times the area of the base of the shape times the altitude of the shape. We might also dimly remember there is some formula for the volume of any conical shape. A conical shape here is something that’s got a simple, closed shape in a plane as its base. And some point P, above the base, that connects by straight lines to every point on the base shape. This sounds like we’re talking about circular cones, but it can be any shape at the base, including polygons.

So we double-check that formula. The volume of a conical shape is one-third times the area of the base shape times the altitude. That’s the perpendicular distance between P and the plane that the base shape is in. And, hey, one-third times the area of the face times the altitude is exactly what we’d expect.

So. The original regular tetrahedron has a base — has all its faces — with area A. It has an altitude h. That h must relate in some way to the area; I don’t care how. The volume of the regular tetrahedron has to be \frac{1}{3} A h .

The volume of the little tetrahedrons is — well, they have the same base as the original regular tetrahedron. So a little tetrahedron’s base is A. The altitude of the little tetrahedron is the height of the original tetrahedron’s centroid above the base. Call that h_c . How can the volume of the little tetrahedron, \frac{1}{3} A h_c , be one-quarter the volume of the original tetrahedron, \frac{1}{3} A h ? Only if h_c is one-quarter h .

This pins down where the centroid of the regular tetrahedron has to be. It’s on the altitude underneath the top point of the tetrahedron. It’s one-quarter of the way up from the equilateral-triangle face.

(And I’m glad, checking this out, that I got to the right answer after all.)

So, if the cube and the tetrahedron have the same height, then the cube has an advantage. The cube’s centroid is higher up, so the tetrahedron has a narrower range to punch. Problem solved.

I do figure to talk about comic strips, and mathematics problems they bring up, more. I’m not sure how writing about one single strip turned into 1300 words. But that’s what happens every time I try to do something simpler. You know how it goes.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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