Maths - behind the scenes / Maths in the society / Maths is fun

Superegg

If there’s a perfect time to write about eggy shapes, this must the the Holy Week. This article reads best while munching on your chocolate egg hunt loot.

Let me take you to centre of Stockholm – back in 1959. The capital of Sweden was being rebuilt after World War II. As a part of this program, two big arteries had been built and they intersected in the heart of the city: Sergels torg (Sergel’s Square). This place appeared to be a big problem for city planners, as its shape wasn’t really a square, but a rectangle.

Sergels

Sergels torg

The idea was to plan a roundabout around it. But what shape should this roundabout have? A circle?

circle_rectangle

Such a waste of space! Ellipse?

elipsa

Too narrow for the traffic in the red parts.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, i.e., for mathematicians. More precisely, the team of architects asked for help Piet Hein, a Danish mathematician, inventor, designer, author, and poet (what else?!). And he invented a superellipse.

To simplify the task, let’s start with a circle. Just a standard x^2+y^2=1, nothing fancy.

circle1

Have you ever wondered, what happens if we enlarge the exponents in this familiar equation? So what does, for example, x^6+y^6=1 look like?

circle2

Is it a cirlce or a square? Or maybe a squircle? The higher the exponent, the closer to a square we get: x^100+y^100=1 is almost indistinguishable from a square.

circle3

Now let’s complicate things, just a little bit, and look at a more general shape: an ellipse. For example, (x/3)^2+(y/2)^2=1 looks like this

ellipse1

Again, as we enlarge the exponents, we get closer and closer to a rectangle. So here’s (x/3)^10+(y/2)^10=1

ellipse10

and (x/3)^100+(y/2)^100=1

ellipse100. Almost a rectangle, right? These interesting shapes are called superellipses.

Remember that our original problem was to build a roundabout rectangular enough to fill most of the available space and circular enough to allow a smooth traffic flow. Hein found out that the perfect shape was an ellipse with exponent equal 2.5 (precisely, the Sergels torg roundabout can be described by and (x/6)^2.5+(y/5)^2.5=1).

Superellipses quickly became popular among architects all over the world. For example, famous Mexican Azteca Olympic Stadium has such a shape.

Other applications include:

  • A shape of the table for negotiators after the Vietnam War, as a compromise between a circular one (“everyone’s equal”) and a rectangular one (“two sides on the conflict”); unfortunately, this amazing idea was rejected.
  • Tobler hyperelliptical projection (one of the methods of drawing maps) uses arcs of superellipses as meridians.
  • In mobile operating system iOS app icons have superellipse curves.

Don’t get impatient, I haven’t forgotten about Easter! Take your favourite superllipse, rotate it along its longest axis and you’ll get a superegg! Why is it so super? Well, it can just stand upright on a flat surface or on top of another superegg. This is a proper solution to the egg of Columbus problem!

 

 

superegg

Photo credit: Malene Thyssen, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Malene

Happy Easter!

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