My 2018 Mathematics A To Z: Tiling


For today’s a to Z topic I again picked one nominated by aajohannas. This after I realized I was falling into a never-ending research spiral on Mr Wu, of Mathtuition’s suggested “torus”. I do have an older essay describing the torus, as a set. But that does leave out a lot of why a torus is interesting. Well, we’ll carry on.

Cartoon of a thinking coati (it's a raccoon-like animal from Latin America); beside him are spelled out on Scrabble titles, 'MATHEMATICS A TO Z', on a starry background. Various arithmetic symbols are constellations in the background.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Newshounds, Something Happens, and Infinity Refugees. His current project is Projection Edge. And you can get Projection Edge six months ahead of public publication by subscribing to his Patreon. And he’s on Twitter as @Newshoundscomic.

Tiling.

Here is a surprising thought for the next time you consider remodeling the kitchen. It’s common to tile the floor. Perhaps some of the walls behind the counter. What patterns could you use? And there are infinitely many possibilities. You might leap ahead of me and say, yes, but they’re all boring. A tile that’s eight inches square is different from one that’s twelve inches square and different from one that’s 12.01 inches square. Fine. Let’s allow that all square tiles are “really” the same pattern. The only difference between a square two feet on a side and a square half an inch on a side is how much grout you have to deal with. There are still infinitely many possibilities.

You might still suspect me of being boring. Sure, there’s a rectangular tile that’s, say, six inches by eight inches. And one that’s six inches by nine inches. Six inches by ten inches. Six inches by one millimeter. Yes, I’m technically right. But I’m not interested in that. Let’s allow that all rectangular tiles are “really” the same pattern. So we have “squares” and “rectangles”. There are still infinitely many tile possibilities.

Let me shorten the discussion here. Draw a quadrilateral. One that doesn’t intersect itself. That is, there’s four corners, four lines, and there’s no X crossings. If you have that, then you have a tiling. Get enough of these tiles and arrange them correctly and you can cover the plane. Or the kitchen floor, if you have a level floor. It might not be obvious how to do it. You might have to rotate alternating tiles, or set them in what seem like weird offsets. But you can do it. You’ll need someone to make the tiles for you, if you pick some weird pattern. I hope I live long enough to see it become part of the dubious kitchen package on junk home-renovation shows.

Let me broaden the discussion here. What do I mean by a tiling if I’m allowing any four-sided figure to be a tile? We start with a surface. Usually the plane, a flat surface stretching out infinitely far in two dimensions. The kitchen floor, or any other mere mortal surface, approximates this. But the floor stops at some point. That’s all right. The ideas we develop for the plane work all right for the kitchen. There’s some weird effects for the tiles that get too near the edges of the room. We don’t need to worry about them here. The tiles are some collection of open sets. No two tiles overlap. The tiles, plus their boundaries, cover the whole plane. That is, every point on the plane is either inside exactly one of the open sets, or it’s on the boundary between one (or more) sets.

There isn’t a requirement that all these sets have the same shape. We usually do, and will limit our tiles to one or two shapes endlessly repeated. It seems to appeal to our aesthetics and our installation budget. Using a single pattern allows us to cover the plane with triangles. Any triangle will do. Similarly any quadrilateral will do. For convex pentagonal tiles — here things get weird. There are fourteen known families of pentagons that tile the plane. Each member of the family looks about the same, but there’s some room for variation in the sides. Plus there’s one more special case that can tile the plane, but only that one shape, with no variation allowed. We don’t know if there’s a sixteenth pattern. But then until 2015 we didn’t know there was a 15th, and that was the first pattern found in thirty years. Might be an opening for someone with a good eye for doodling.

There are also exciting opportunities in convex hexagons. Anyone who plays strategy games knows a regular hexagon will tile the plane. (Regular hexagonal tilings fit a certain kind of strategy game well. Particularly they imply an equal distance between the centers of any adjacent tiles. Square and triangular tiles don’t guarantee that. This can imply better balance for territory-based games.) Irregular hexagons will, too. There are three known families of irregular hexagons that tile the plane. You can treat the regular hexagon as a special case of any of these three families. No one knows if there’s a fourth family. Ready your notepad at the next overlong, agenda-less meeting.

There aren’t tilings for identical convex heptagons, figures with seven sides. Nor eight, nor nine, nor any higher figure. You can cover them if you have non-convex figures. See any Tetris game where you keep getting the ‘s’ or ‘t’ shapes. And you can cover them if you use several shapes.

There’s some guidance if you want to create your own periodic tilings. I see it called the Conway Criterion. I don’t know the field well enough to say whether that is a common term. It could be something one mathematics popularizer thought of and that other popularizers imitated. (I don’t find “Conway Criterion” on the Mathworld glossary, but that isn’t definitive.) Suppose your polygon satisfies a couple of rules about the shapes of the edges. The rules are given in that link earlier this paragraph. If your shape does, then it’ll be able to tile the plane. If you don’t satisfy the rules, don’t despair! It might yet. The Conway Criterion tells you when some shape will tile the plane. It won’t tell you that something won’t.

(The name “Conway” may nag at you as familiar from somewhere. This criterion is named for John H Conway, who’s famous for a bunch of work in knot theory, group theory, and coding theory. And in popular mathematics for the “Game of Life”. This is a set of rules on a grid of numbers. The rules say how to calculate a new grid, based on this first one. Iterating them, creating grid after grid, can make patterns that seem far too complicated to be implicit in the simple rules. Conway also developed an algorithm to calculate the day of the week, in the Gregorian calendar. It is difficult to explain to the non-calendar fan how great this sort of thing is.)

This has all gotten to periodic tilings. That is, these patterns might be complicated. But if need be, we could get them printed on a nice square tile and cover the floor with that. Almost as beautiful and much easier to install. Are there tilings that aren’t periodic? Aperiodic tilings?

Well, sure. Easily. Take a bunch of tiles with a right angle, and two 45-degree angles. Put any two together and you have a square. So you’re “really” tiling squares that happen to be made up of a pair of triangles. Each pair, toss a coin to decide whether you put the diagonal as a forward or backward slash. Done. That’s not a periodic tiling. Not unless you had a weird run of luck on your coin tosses.

All right, but is that just a technicality? We could have easily installed this periodically and we just added some chaos to make it “not work”. Can we use a finite number of different kinds of tiles, and have it be aperiodic however much we try to make it periodic? And through about 1966 mathematicians would have mostly guessed that no, you couldn’t. If you had a set of tiles that would cover the plane aperiodically, there was also some way to do it periodically.

And then in 1966 came a surprising result. No, not Penrose tiles. I know you want me there. I’ll get there. Not there yet though. In 1966 Robert Berger — who also attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, thank you — discovered such a tiling. It’s aperiodic, and it can’t be made periodic. Why do we know Penrose Tiles rather than Berger Tiles? Couple reasons, including that Berger has to use 20,426 distinct tile shapes. In 1971 Raphael M Robinson simplified matters a bit and got that down to six shapes. Roger Penrose in 1974 squeezed the set down to two, although by adding some rules about what edges may and may not touch one another. (You can turn this into a pure edges thing by putting notches into the shapes.) That really caught the public imagination. It’s got simplicity and accessibility to combine with beauty. Aperiodic tiles seem to relate to “quasicrystals”, which are what the name suggests and do happen in some materials. And they’ve got beauty. Aperiodic tiling embraces our need to have not too much order in our order.

I’ve discussed, in all this, tiling the plane. It’s an easy surface to think about and a popular one. But we can form tiling questions about other shapes. Cylinders, spheres, and toruses seem like they should have good tiling questions available. And we can imagine “tiling” stuff in more dimensions too. If we can fill a volume with cubes, or rectangles, it’s natural to wonder what other shapes we can fill it with. My impression is that fewer definite answers are known about the tiling of three- and four- and higher-dimensional space. Possibly because it’s harder to sketch out ideas and test them. Possibly because the spaces are that much stranger. I would be glad to hear more.


I’m hoping now to have a nice relaxing weekend. I won’t. I need to think of what to say for the letter ‘U’. On Tuesday I hope that it will join the rest of my A to Z essays at this link.

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