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Billiards in a circle

1. Consider the game of billiards. Suppose that the game is played with one ball
on a circular surface instead of a rectangular one. Given that the ball is placed
at a starting point on the edge of the table:
(a) Imagine that the ball bounces off of two and only two walls before returning to the original point. What is the measure of the angles that characterize the closed figure polygon which represents a trace of the ball’s
path?

(b) Imagine that the ball bounces off of three and only three walls before
returning to the original point. What is the measure of the angles that
characterize the closed figure polygon which represents a trace of the ball’s
path?

(a) regular polygons

(b) collision angle ψ

Figure 1: Billiards in a circle
(c) Fill out the table to find a mathematical relationship between the number
of walls struck, n, the angle, θ, from parts (a) and (b) and the angle the
ball’s path makes with the wall, ψ:
Walls
(n)
1
2
3

Inner
Collision
angle (θ) angle (ψ)

x
(d) What is a choice you could make for θ that ensures you never return to
the starting point? Can you find another?

(e) Reflect! How did you decide about how a ball should bounce off a circular
wall?

(f) Restate the inscribed angle theorem.

(g) What central angle corresponds to the intercepted arc defined by ψ. Does
the inscribed angle theorem apply to this situation?

(h) For paths with a large or infinite number of collisions before returning to
the original position, make a sketch for the ball’s path. Compare your
sketch with your neighbor’s. What questions do you want to ask next?

References
N. Chernov and R. Markarian, “Chaotic Billiards,” Mathematical Surveys and Monographs, 127, AMS, Providence, RI, 2006. Preview available at: http://www.ams.
org/bookstore/pspdf/surv-127-prev.pdf