My All 2020 Mathematics A to Z: Tiling

Mr Wu, author of the Singapore Maths Tuition blog, had an interesting suggestion for the letter T: Talent. As in mathematical talent. It’s a fine topic but, in the end, too far beyond my skills. I could share some of the legends about mathematical talent I’ve received. But what that says about the culture of mathematicians is a deeper and more important question.

So I picked my own topic for the week. I do have topics for next week — U — and the week after — V — chosen. But the letters W and X? I’m still open to suggestions. I’m open to creative or wild-card interpretations of the letters. Especially for X and (soon) Z. Thanks for sharing any thoughts you care to.

Color cartoon illustration of a coati in a beret and neckerchief, holding up a director's megaphone and looking over the Hollywood hills. The megaphone has the symbols + x (division obelus) and = on it. The Hollywood sign is, instead, the letters MATHEMATICS. In the background are spotlights, with several of them crossing so as to make the letters A and Z; one leg of the spotlights has 'TO' in it, so the art reads out, subtly, 'Mathematics A to Z'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.


Think of a floor. Imagine you are bored. What do you notice?

What I hope you notice is that it is covered. Perhaps by carpet, or concrete, or something homogeneous like that. Let’s ignore that. My floor is covered in small pieces, repeated. My dining room floor is slats of wood, about three and a half feet long and two inches wide. The slats are offset from the neighbors so there’s a pleasant strong line in one direction and stippled lines in the other. The kitchen is squares, one foot on each side. This is a grid we could plot high school algebra functions on. The bathroom is more elaborate. It has white rectangles about two inches long, tan rectangles about two inches long, and black squares. Each rectangle is perpendicular to ones of the other color, and arranged to bisect those. The black squares fill the gaps where no rectangle would fit.

Move from my house to pure mathematics. It’s easy to turn the floor of a room into abstract mathematics. We start with something to tile. Usually this is the infinite, two-dimensional plane. The thing you get if you have a house and forget the walls. Sometimes we look to tile the hyperbolic plane, a different geometry that we of course represent with a finite circle. (Setting particular rules about how to measure distance makes this equivalent to a funny-shaped plane.) Or the surface of a sphere, or of a torus, or something like that. But if we don’t say otherwise, it’s the plane.

What to cover it with? … Smaller shapes. We have a mathematical tiling if we have a collection of not-overlapping open sets. And if those open sets, plus their boundaries, cover the whole plane. “Cover” here means what “cover” means in English, only using more technical words. These sets — these tiles — can be any shape. We can have as many or as few of them as we like. We can even add markings to the tiles, give them colors or patterns or such, to add variety to the puzzles.

(And if we want, we can do this in other dimensions. There are good “tiling” questions to ask about how to fill a three-dimensional space, or a four-dimensional one, or more.)

Having an unlimited collection of tiles is nice. But mathematicians learn to look for how little we need to do something. Here, we look for the smallest number of distinct shapes. As with tiling an actual floor, we can get all the tiles we need. We can rotate them, too, to any angle. We can flip them over and put the “top” side “down”, something kitchen tiles won’t let us do. Can we reflect them? Use the shape we’d get looking at the mirror image of one? That’s up to whoever’s writing this paper.

What shapes will work? Well, squares, for one. We can prove that by looking at a sheet of graph paper. Rectangles would work too. We can see that by drawing boxes around the squares on our graph paper. Two-by-one blocks, three-by-two blocks, 40-by-1 blocks, these all still cover the paper and we can imagine covering the plane. If we like, we can draw two-by-two squares. Squares made up of smaller squares. Or repeat this: draw two-by-one rectangles, and then group two of these rectangles together to make two-by-two squares.

We can take it on faith that, oh, rectangles π long by e wide would cover the plane too. These can all line up in rows and columns, the way our squares would. Or we can stagger them, like bricks or my dining room’s wood slats are.

How about parallelograms? Those, it turns out, tile exactly as well as rectangles or squares do. Grids or staggered, too. Ah, but how about trapezoids? Surely they won’t tile anything. Not generally, anyway. The slanted sides will, most of the time, only fit in weird winding circle-like paths.

Unless … take two of these trapezoid tiles. We’ll set them down so the parallel sides run horizontally in front of you. Rotate one of them, though, 180 degrees. And try setting them — let’s say so the longer slanted line of both trapezoids meet, edge to edge. These two trapezoids come together. They make a parallelogram, although one with a slash through it. And we can tile parallelograms, whether or not they have a slash.

OK, but if you draw some weird quadrilateral shape, and it’s not anything that has a more specific name than “quadrilateral”? That won’t tile the plane, will it?

It will! In one of those turns that surprises and impresses me every time I run across it again, any quadrilateral can tile the plane. It opens up so many home decorating options, if you get in good with a tile maker.

That’s some good news for quadrilateral tiles. How about other shapes? Triangles, for example? Well, that’s good news too. Take two of any identical triangle you like. Turn one of them around and match sides of the same length. The two triangles, bundled together like that, are a quadrilateral. And we can use any quadrilateral to tile the plane, so we’re done.

How about pentagons? … With pentagons, the easy times stop. It turns out not every pentagon will tile the plane. The pentagon has to be of the right kind to make it fit. If the pentagon is in one of these kinds, it can tile the plane. If not, not. There are fifteen families of tiling known. The most recent family was discovered in 2015. It’s thought that there are no other convex pentagon tilings. I don’t know whether the proof of that is generally accepted in tiling circles. And we can do more tilings if the pentagon doesn’t need to be convex. For example, we can cut any parallelogram into two identical pentagons. So we can make as many pentagons as we want to cover the plane. But we can’t assume any pentagon we like will do it.

Hexagons look promising. First, a regular hexagon tiles the plane, as strategy games know. There are also at least three families of irregular hexagons that we know can tile the plane.

And there the good times end. There are no convex heptagons or octagons or any other shape with more sides that tile the plane.

Not by themselves, anyway. If we have more than one tile shape we can start doing fine things again. Octagons assisted by squares, for example, will tile the plane. I’ve lived places with that tiling. Or something that looks like it. It’s easier to install if you have square tiles with an octagon pattern making up the center, and triangle corners a different color. These squares come together to look like octagons and squares.

And this leads to a fun avenue of tiling. Hao Wang, in the early 60s, proposed a sort of domino-like tiling. You may have seen these in mathematics puzzles, or in toys. Each of these Wang Tiles, or Wang Dominoes, is a square. But the square is cut along the diagonals, into four quadrants. Each quadrant is a right triangle. Each quadrant, each triangle, is one of a finite set of colors. Adjacent triangles can have the same color. You can place down tiles, subject only to the rule that the tile edge has to have the same color on both sides. So a tile with a blue right-quadrant has to have on its right a tile with a blue left-quadrant. A tile with a white upper-quadrant on its top has, above it, a tile with a white lower-quadrant.

In 1961 Wang conjectured that if a finite set of these tiles will tile the plane, then there must be a periodic tiling. That is, if you picked up the plane and slid it a set horizontal and vertical distance, it would all look the same again. This sort of translation is common. All my floors do that. If we ignore things like the bounds of their rooms, or the flaws in their manufacture or installation or where a tile broke in some mishap.

This is not to say you couldn’t arrange them aperiodically. You don’t even need Wang Tiles for that. Get two colors of square tile, a white and a black, and lay them down based on whether the next decimal digit of π is odd or even. No; Wang’s conjecture was that if you had tiles that you could lay down aperiodically, then you could also arrange them to set down periodically. With the black and white squares, lay down alternate colors. That’s easy.

In 1964, Robert Berger proved Wang’s conjecture was false. He found a collection of Wang Tiles that could only tile the plane aperiodically. In 1966 he published this in the Memoirs of the American Mathematical Society. The 1964 proof was for his thesis. 1966 was its general publication. I mention this because while doing research I got irritated at how different sources dated this to 1964, 1966, or sometimes 1961. I want to have this straightened out. It appears Berger had the proof in 1964 and the publication in 1966.

I would like to share details of Berger’s proof, but haven’t got access to the paper. What fascinates me about this is that Berger’s proof used a set of 20,426 different tiles. I assume he did not work this all out with shards of construction paper, but then, how to get 20,426 of anything? With computer time as expensive as it was in 1964? The mystery of how he got all these tiles is worth an essay of its own and regret I can’t write it.

Berger conjectured that a smaller set might do. Quite so. He himself reduced the set to 104 tiles. Donald Knuth in 1968 modified the set down to 92 tiles. In 2015 Emmanuel Jeandel and Michael Rao published a set of 11 tiles, using four colors. And showed by computer search that a smaller set of tiles, or fewer colors, would not force some aperiodic tiling to exist. I do not know whether there might be other sets of 11, four-colored, tiles that work. You can see the set at the top of Wikipedia’s page on Wang Tiles.

These Wang Tiles, all squares, inspired variant questions. Could there be other shapes that only aperiodically tile the plane? What if they don’t have to be squares? Raphael Robinson, in 1971, came up with a tiling using six shapes. The shapes have patterns on them too, usually represented as colored lines. Tiles can be put down only in ways that fit and that make the lines match up.

Among my readers are people who have been waiting, for 1800 words now, for Roger Penrose. It’s now that time. In 1974 Penrose published an aperiodic tiling, one based on pentagons and using a set of six tiles. You’ve never heard of that either, because soon after he found a different set, based on a quadrilateral cut into two shapes. The shapes, as with Wang Tiles or Robinson’s tiling, have rules about what edges may be put against each other. Penrose — and independently Robert Ammann — also developed another set, this based on a pair of rhombuses. These have rules about what edges may tough one another, and have patterns on them which must line up.

The Penrose tiling became, and stayed famous. (Ammann, an amateur, never had much to do with the mathematics community. He died in 1994.) Martin Gardner publicized it, and it leapt out of mathematicians’ hands into the popular culture. At least a bit. That it could give you nice-looking floors must have helped.

To show that the rhombus-based Penrose tiling is aperiodic takes some arguing. But it uses tools already used in this essay. Remember drawing rectangles around several squares? And then drawing squares around several of these rectangles? We can do that with these Penrose-Ammann rhombuses. From the rhombus tiling we can draw bigger rhombuses. Ones which, it turns out, follow the same edge rules that the originals do. So that we can go again, grouping these bigger rhombuses into even-bigger rhombuses. And into even-even-bigger rhombuses. And so on.

What this gets us is this: suppose the rhombus tiling is periodic. Then there’s some finite-distance horizontal-and-vertical move that leaves the pattern unchanged. So, the same finite-distance move has to leave the bigger-rhombus pattern unchanged. And this same finite-distance move has to leave the even-bigger-rhombus pattern unchanged. Also the even-even-bigger pattern unchanged.

Keep bundling rhombuses together. You get eventually-big-enough-rhombuses. Now, think of how far you have to move the tiles to get a repeat pattern. Especially, think how many eventually-big-enough-rhombuses it is. This distance, the move you have to make, is less than one eventually-big-enough rhombus. (If it’s not you aren’t eventually-big-enough yet. Bundle them together again.) And that doesn’t work. Moving one tile over without changing the pattern makes sense. Moving one-half a tile over? That doesn’t. So the eventually-big-enough pattern can’t be periodic, and so, the original pattern can’t be either. This is explained in graphic detail a nice Powerpoint slide set from Professor Alexander F Ritter, A Tour Of Tilings In Thirty Minutes.

It’s possible to do better. In 2010 Joshua E S Socolar and Joan M Taylor published a single tile that can force an aperiodic tiling. As with the Wang Tiles, and Robinson shapes, and the Penrose-Ammann rhombuses, markings are part of it. They have to line up so that the markings — in two colors, in the renditions I’ve seen — make sense. With the Penrose tilings, you can get away from the pattern rules for the edges by replacing them with little notches. The Socolar-Taylor shape can make a similar trade. Here the rules are complex enough that it would need to be a three-dimensional shape, one that looks like the dilithium housing of the warp core. You can see the tile — in colored, marked form, and also in three-dimensional tile shape — at the PDF here. It’s likely not coming to the flooring store soon.

It’s all wonderful, but is it useful? I could go on a few hundred words about, particularly, crystals and quasicrystals. These are important for materials science. Especially these days as we have harnessed slightly-imperfect crystals to be our computers. I don’t care. These are lovely to look at. If you see nothing appealing in a great heap of colors and polygons spread over the floor there are things we cannot communicate about. Tiling is a delight; what more do you need?

Thanks for your attention. This and all of my 2020 A-to-Z essays should be at this link. All the essays from every A-to-Z series should be at this link. See you next week, I hope.

Stars On The Flag

The United States flag has as many stars as the country has states. For a long while star arrangement was up to the flag-maker, with no specific rule in place. This is where the occasional weird and ugly 19th century flag comes from. But the arrangement has got codified. It’s to be stars in rows, or at least staggered rows.

It’s easy to understand how to arrange 48 stars, which the flag had for a while. Or 49 stars, which it had almost long enough to get a new flag made. 50 stars, which it’s had for longer than 48 now, are familiar from experience. But a natural question is how to arrange an arbitrary number of stars? And courtesy the MTBos Blogbog, linking to essays about mathematics, I don’t have to answer it myself.

Experience First Math reviewed the problem recently. You can find a pattern by playing around, of course. It’s not very efficient, but we don’t need new flags very often. We don’t need to save time on this.

And uniformly spacing stuff can be a hard problem. For example, no one knows what is the most uniform way to put thirteen spots on the surface of a sphere. We’re certain that we’re close, though.

This is a simpler problem. We have to fit stars in a rectangle. The stars have to be arranged in rows, or in staggered rows. Each row can’t be too much bigger or smaller than its neighbors. And with that, a little bit of factoring and geometric reasoning and counting produces a lovely result: how to generally arrange stars.

Well, almost generally. There are some numbers that don’t work with alternating rows. We’ve seen this before. There were some ugly compromises necessary to have a 44-star flag, in the 1890s, or the 36-star flag in 1865. But with this alternating-rows example, we’ve got a hint to working out other nearly-staggered and nearly-alternating row patterns.

Tessellation Using Equilateral Triangles, Isosceles Triangles, Squares, Regular Pentagons, and Equilateral, Non-Convex Octakaitetracontagons

I’m afraid I lack the time to talk about this in more detail today, but, Robert Loves Pi, a geometry-oriented blog, has a lovely tessellation that you might like to see. Tessellations are ways to cover a surface, usually a plane, with an, ideally, small set of a couple pieces infinitely repeated. As a field of mathematics it’s more closely related to kitchen floors than the usual, but it’s also wonderfully artistic, and the study of these patterns brings one into abstract algebra.

In abstract algebra you look at things that work, in some ways, like arithmetic does — you can add and multiply things — without necessarily being arithmetic. The things that you can do to a pattern without changing it — sliding it in some direction, rotating it some angle, maybe reflecting it across some dividing line — can often be added together and multiplied in ways that look strikingly like what you do with regular old numbers, which is part of why this is a field that’s fascinating both when you first look at it and when you get deeply into its study.

Tessellation Using Equilateral Triangles, Isosceles Triangles, Squares, Regular Pentagons, and Equilateral, Non-Convex Octakaitetracontagons

In this tessellation, regular polygons have been given the brighter colors, while the two non-regular polygons have pastel colors.

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