Reading the Comics Follow-up: Where Else Is A Tetrahedron’s Centroid Edition


A Reading the Comics post a couple weeks back inspired me to find the centroid of a regular tetrahedron. A regular tetrahedron, also known as “a tetrahedron”, is the four-sided die shape. A pyramid with triangular base. Or a cone with a triangle base, if you prefer. If one asks a person to draw a tetrahedron, and they comply, they’ll likely draw this shape. The centroid, the center of mass of the tetrahedron, is at a point easy enough to find. It’s on the perpendicular between any of the four faces — the equilateral triangles — and the vertex not on that face. Particularly, it’s one-quarter the distance from the face towards the other vertex. We can reason that out purely geometrically, without calculating, and I did in that earlier post.

But most tetrahedrons are not regular. They have centroids too; where are they?

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.

Thing is I know the correct answer going in. It’s at the “average” of the vertices of the tetrahedron. Start with the Cartesian coordinates of the four vertices. The x-coordinate of the centroid is the arithmetic mean of the x-coordinates of the four vertices. The y-coordinate of the centroid is the mean of the y-coordinates of the vertices. The z-coordinate of the centroid is the mean of the z-coordinates of the vertices. Easy to calculate; but, is there a way to see that this is right?

What’s got me is I can think of an argument that convinces me. So in this sense, I have an easy proof of it. But I also see where this argument leaves a lot unaddressed. So it may not prove things to anyone else. Let me lay it out, though.

So start with a tetrahedron of your own design. This will be less confusing if I have labels for the four vertices. I’m going to call them A, B, C, and D. I don’t like those labels, not just for being trite, but because I so want ‘C’ to be the name for the centroid. I can’t find a way to do that, though, and not have the four tetrahedron vertices be some weird set of letters. So let me use ‘P’ as the name for the centroid.

Where is P, relative to the points A, B, C, and D?

And here’s where I give a part of an answer. Start out by putting the tetrahedron somewhere convenient. That would be the floor. Set the tetrahedron so that the face with triangle ABC is in the xy plane. That is, points A, B, and C all have the z-coordinate of 0. The point D has a z-coordinate that is not zero. Let me call that coordinate h. I don’t care what the x- and y-coordinates for any of these points are. What I care about is what the z-coordinate for the centroid P is.

The property of the centroid that was useful last time around was that it split the regular tetrahedron into four smaller, irregular, tetrahedrons, each with the same volume. Each with one-quarter the volume of the original. The centroid P does that for the tetrahedron too. So, how far does the point P have to be from the triangle ABC to make a tetrahedron with one-quarter the volume of the original?

The answer comes from the same trick used last time. The volume of a cone is one-third the area of the base times its altitude. The volume of the tetrahedron ABCD, for example, is one-third times the area of triangle ABC times how far point D is from the triangle. That number I’d labelled h. The volume of the tetrahedron ABCP, meanwhile, is one-third times the area of triangle ABC times how far point P is from the triangle. So the point P has to be one-quarter as far from triangle ABC as the point D is. It’s got a z-coordinate of one-quarter h.

Notice, by the way, that while I don’t know anything about the x- and y- coordinates of any of these points, I do know the z-coordinates. A, B, and C all have z-coordinate of 0. D has a z-coordinate of h. And P has a z-coordinate of one-quarter h. One-quarter h sure looks like the arithmetic mean of 0, 0, 0, and h.

At this point, I’m convinced. The coordinates of the centroid have to be the mean of the coordinates of the vertices. But you also see how much is not addressed. You’d probably grant that I have the z-coordinate coordinate worked out when three vertices have the same z-coordinate. Or where three vertices have the same y-coordinate or the same x-coordinate. You might allow that if I can rotate a tetrahedron, I can get three points to the same z-coordinate (or y- or x- if you like). But this still only gets one coordinate of the centroid P.

I’m sure a bit of algebra would wrap this up. But I would like to avoid that, if I can. I suspect the way to argue this geometrically depends on knowing the line from vertex D to tetrahedron centroid P, if extended, passes through the centroid of triangle ABC. And something similar applies for vertexes A, B, and C. I also suspect there’s a link between the vector which points the direction from D to P and the sum of the three vectors that point the directions from D to A, B, and C. I haven’t quite got there, though.

I will let you know if I get closer.

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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