Periodic Billiard Paths in Triangles

By Joel Noche Let a billiard system consist of a point moving at constant speed on a plane bounded by a closed figure. Upon hitting the boundary the point changes its direction of motion such that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection. (The point stops moving if it hits a sharp corner.) The path that the point follows is called a billiard path. If the point returns to a location with the same direction of motion it had before at that location, then its path is said to be periodic. In this article, the closed figure is a triangle. A triangle can be acute (all interior angles measure less than 90 degrees), right (one interior angle measures 90 degrees), or obtuse (one interior angle measures more than 90 degrees). It has been long known that every acute triangle has a periodic billiard path. Let a triangle have vertices A, B, and C. (Refer to Figure 1.) Construct lines from each vertex to the opposite side that are perpendicular to that side. Let the points of intersection of these three lines with the sides of the triangle be called Ha, Hb, and Hc. The triangle formed by these three points is the periodic billiard path.

Figure 1. Every acute triangle has a periodic billiard path (Halbeisen & Hungerbühler, 2000) Proofs that right triangles have periodic billiard paths are more recent. Schwartz’s (2004) simple graphical proof that every right triangle has a periodic billiard path is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Every right triangle has a periodic billiard path (Schwartz, 2004) Proofs that some obtuse triangles have periodic billiard paths exist, but so far, no one knows if all obtuse triangles have periodic billiard paths. References
Halbeisen, L. & Hungerbühler, N. (2000). On periodic billiard trajectories in obtuse triangles. SIAM Review, 42(4), 657–670. Schwartz, R. (2004). A very short proof that every right triangle has a periodic billiard path. Retrieved August 29, 2010, from http://www.math.brown.edu/~res/Papers/billiards1.pdf.

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