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The Kakeya Problem

Author(s): A. S. Besicovitch
Source: The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 70, No. 7 (Aug. - Sep., 1963), pp. 697-706
Published by: Mathematical Association of America
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2312249 .
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THE KAKEYA PROBLEM


A. S. BESICOVITCH, DartmouthCollege
EditorialNote. In 1958a grantfromthe NationalScienceFoundationenabledthe Mathe.
on Production
ofFilmsforthe purpose
rnaticalAssociationofAmericato establisha Committee
ofexploring
by experiment
thepossibilities
ofmathematical
motionpictures.In all, thecommittee
techniques.
producedfourfilmsat different
educationallevels,employing
a varietyofproduction
For information
about rentalor purchaseof thesefilmsaddressModernLearningAids,3 East
54thStreet,New York22, New York.
For the last of thesefilms,the CommitteeinvitedProfessor
A. S. Besicovitchto lectureon
hisbrilliantsolutiontQthe Kakeya Problem,firstpublishedin 1928.The techniqueofanimation
constructions
employedin this filmis particularly
appropriateforthe geQmetric
involved.The
following
articleapproximates
thescriptofthefilm.

In my paper "Sur deux questions d'integrabilite,"published in a Russian


periodical in 1920, I consideredthe problem:
on a plane domain,does
Givena functionof twovariables,Riemann-integrable
therealways exist a pair of mutuallyperpendiculardirectionssuch that the repeated simple integrationalong thetwodirectionsexistsand givesthevalue of the
integraloverthedomain?
The problemreducesto that of the existenceof a set ofJordanplane measure
zero whichis the union of segmentsof all directionseach of length _ 1.
The Russian periodical hardly reached othercountries because of the isolation of Russia caused by the civil war and the blockade.
In 1917 a twin problemhad been proposed by the Japanese maithematician
S. Kakeya:
In the class of figuresin whicha segmentof length1 can be turnedaround
through360?, remainingalways withinthefigure,whichone has thesmallestarea?
This problemof course did not reach Russia. I call the two problems "twin
problems" because,each of them is concernedwith sets containingsegmentsof
all directions,with the additiQnalconditionin Kakeya's case that there should
be a continuoustransition,withinthe set, fromone position of the segmentto
any otherone.
Let u.slook at a few figuresof the above class.
Obviously a circle of diameter 1 (Fig. 1) is a figureof the class, for if we
place the mid-pointof the segment in the center of the circle and rotate the
segmentabout the centerthrough3600, the segmentwill always remain within
the circle. Another obvious figureof the class is an equilateral triangle AJ3C
of height1 (Fig. 2). For, placing the segmenton the side A C so that one end is at
A, we can rotate it about A through600 bringingit onto A B; then we let it
slide along AB until the other end of the segment reaches X, then rotate it
abQut B, and so on.
The areas of the circleand of the triangleare vr/4 .78 and .58 respectively.
-

697

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698

[September

THE KAKEYA PROBLEM

A three-cornered
hypocycloidinscribedin a circleof diameter3/2 also belongs
to the class (Fig. 3). For it is well known that the tangentline at any point M
of the hypocycloidmeets the hypocycloidat two other points A and B distant 1 fromeach other. Thus if we let one end of the segment describe the
hypocycloidwhile keeping the segmenttouchingthe hypocycloid,we have the
otherend of the segmentalso movingon the hypocycloidand so the wholeof the
segment remains all the time withinthe hypocycloid.
B

ALf
FIG. 1

1
FIG. 2

The area of the hypocycloidis 7r/8=.39, that is exactly half of the area of a
circle of diameter 1. It was conjecturedthat the hypocycloidwas the figureof
minimumarea. The problemaroused great interest.In 1925 G. D. Birkhoff,
one
of the greatestmathematiciansof his time, writingabout unsolved problemsin
his book The Origin,Natureand Influenceof Relativity,firstmentionsthe fourcolor problem,then adds: "Of like intriguingsimplicityis the question raised
a few years ago by the Japanese mathematician Kakeya."
My solution of the Kakeya problem was published in the Mathematische
in 1928 and was reportedto the American Mathematical Society by
Zeitschrift

J. D. Tamarkin.

The figurearrivedat in solving my problem,togetherwith the "joins suggested by a Hungarian mathematician J. Pal, representmy solution of the
Kakeya Problem.
My solutionshows that the hypocycloidconjectureis false,and that in fact,
thereare figuresof arbitrarilysmall area which permita unit segmentto change
its directionby 360? while moving continuouslywithinthem.
The plan of the solution is this. We take a square of side 2 (see Fig. 4) and
divide it into fourcongruentrighttrianglesby joining the centerto the vertices.
The hypotenuseof each triangleis divided into a large numbern of equal parts.
Joiningeach point of division to the centerof the square, we have 4n "elementary" triangles,each of height1.
We enumerate the elementarytriangles in the order in which they come
as we move around the boundary of the square in the counterclockwisedirection, startingat the vertex A. The directionsof the various segmentswhich

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1963]

THE KAKEYA PROBLEM

699

FIG. 3

B
FIG. 4

B
FIG. 4 (a)

join the vertex of each elementarytriangle to every point of its base have a
range of 3600. The same will remain true if we give arbitraryparallel translations to the elementarytriangles(see Fig. 4a). As we shall show,parallel translations can be given to these elementarytriangleswhich achieve such a degree
of overlappingthat the totalarea coveredby thetrianglesin theirnew positionis
as small as we please.
Now ifwe place an end-pointof the unit segmentsuccessivelyat the vertices
01, 02, - * -

ofthefirsttriangle,
thesecondone,and so on,intheirpositionafter

translationsand in each case rotate it in the positive directionsfromone side


of the triangle to the other, the segment would turn through 3600. But this
movementwould not be continuous,forin movingfromone triangleto the next

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700

[September

THE KAKEYA PROBLEM

one the segmentwould not remain withinthe area of the figure.We eliminate
this difficulty
by means of Pal's joins, as follows:
L

EG

FIG. 5

Let DEF and GHI (Fig. 5) be a pair of consecutive elementarytriangles


aftera parallel translation,and e an arbitrarilysmall positive number.The sides
DF and GH are parallel. Take a point K on HI so that HK/HI < e/8.
Suppose that the lines DF and GK meet in the point L and the triangle
LMN is congruentto GHK. We have (denotingarea by the sign |)

ILMNI - I GHKI

8- I GH

The figureconsistingof the lines GL, DL and of the triangleLMN will be called
the join. We see that the area of the join is less than E/8times the area of an
elementarytriangle.Connectingevery pair of consecutiveelementarytriangles
we shall get 4njoins oftotalarea less thanE/8timesthearea ofthewholesquare,i.e.
<e/2. The join added to the trianglesDEF, GHI permitsthe unit segmentto
come fromthe triangleDEE to GHI remainingalways on the area of the triangles or of the join. For, fromthe position of the segmenton the side DF we
let the segmentslide down along the line DL until its lower end-pointreaches
L, then rotate about L until it reaches the side LN and then slide up until its
top end reaches G, that is, gets in the second triangle.Thus the problemis reduced to findingparallel translationsof elementarytrianglessuch thatthe area
coveredby thembe small.
0

B
FIG. 6

Perron in 1929 published a new proofof my theoremin which the system


of translationswhile essentiallysimilar to mine is somewhat simpler.Recently
ProfessorI. J. Schoenberghas carriedout the Perronconstructionin the reverse

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1963]

701

THE KAKEYA PROBLEM

order, which has the advantage of being still simplerin details and easier to
visualize. It is essentiallythis versionthat we shall adopt here.
We consider the coordinate plane and an integerp>2. We constructthe
isosceles right triangleA=OAB of our original square with its hypotenuseof
length2 on the x-axis. The base AB of A is divided into n= 2X-2equal parts and
n elementarytriangleswith vertex 0 are constructed.Figure 6 shows the case
p-5, n=25-2=8.
4
3
2
0

A1

3
T1

TI

T2

4
T,,

4
T1

t:A2

4
73

4
T4

5
T1

T9

6
3

.
fi

T4

fi

T5

S
TS'

5
8

A5

A4

FIG. 7

We next draw the lines y-k/IP, for k= 1, 2, * * *, p (Fig. 7) and call the
line y = k/pthe line of level k, or simply levelk. We then constructp isosceles
right triangles A1, A2, * *, A
Ap each with hypotenuse on the x-axis, and the
opposite verticeson the 1, 2, . . . , p levels respectively.Note that A.= A. For
, p
each k, k =3,
p, the base of Ak is divided into 21-2 equal parts and the
elementarytrianglesare constructedon the subintervalsof each base. Notice
that Ak+1 is divided into twice as many elementarytrianglesas Ak; A2 is not
divided into elementarytriangles,A3 is divided into two, A4 into four,A5 into
eight,and so on (see Fig. 7).
We shall now assign labels to the elementarytrianglesin each Ak. These will
A . . .
be labeled fromleft to right as rik , k*,
The superscriptk
T*,
tk-2.
*,
shows that Tj is part ofAk and the subscriptj says that Tr is thej-th elementary
trianglein Ak countingfromleftto right.A2is not divided into elementarytriangles. We shall say it coincides with the elementarytriangler'; A3 has r3 and
T3as elementarytriangles;A4 has r4,
T4, and r4;
1 r4,
4 and
r2asA
2, 13, an
n so
onon.
Note a simple relationshipbetween the elementarytrianglesof Ak and of
Ak+l

0. -

0\
~

:_
NL

0
NL

MRNLS

R N

FIG. 8

Let us start with 2= LON (Fig. 8). Bisect it by the median OM into two
trianglesOLM and ONM and expand them to similartrianglesPLR and QNS
to the level 3. We shall call this operation the bisection and expansion. The

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702

[September

THE KAYKEYA PROBLEM

resultof this operationis a pair of trianglescongruentto the pair r' and r' ofA3.
Similarlyis definedthe operation of bisectionand expansion of the trianglesrj
for any k> 2: rj is bisected into two trianglesby the median fromits vertex,
-andeach of the trianglesis expanded to the next level. The operation transformsrj into parallel translates of r2+t1and r21 (Fig. 10), and applied to the
set of all trianglesTi, or to any set of their parallel translates,transformsthe
set into a set of parallel translates of elementarytriangles of Ak+1. Figure 9
representsa particularcase of k = 3.

T3

3a
T2

r1

T4
3

FIG. 9

k+1

_~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~T'

~~

k+1

k+1

tl~~~~~+1k+I

FIG. 10

The part of Ak (or of any elementarytriangle rj' of Ak) which lies between
levels k - 1 and k will be called the "top end" of Ak (or of rj). Notice that the
top end of Ak is congruentto A1and that the sum of the areas of the top ends
of all elementarytrianglesof Ak is equal to the area of the top of Ak,that is to
IA1, (see Fig. 11).

k+1
k
~~~-l'-

..

FIG. 11

Now let us look at the change in area when bisection and expansion are
applied to a triangle.Consider an elementarytriangle j = LMN with vertex N
at level k (see Fig. 12). Let NP be the median of LM1N, bisecting it into the
two subtrianglesLPN and MPN. If we expand LPN upwards and to the right
to the level k+1, we get a similartriangleLRQ. If we expand MPN upward to
the leftto level k+1, we get a similar triangle MTS.

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1963]

THE

KAKEYA

703

PROBLEM

k+1

NS

k+1

kS//

k-

k-1

L~~~~~~~~
L

TP

XL

FIG. 12

The two trianglesLRQ and MTS togethercover the triangleLMN and the
two "end pieces" SNV and QNU.
We have
= |QNUj

ISNVI

INUVI

so that the two overlapping trianglescover an area equal to the area of the
originaltriangleLAIN plus twice the area of the top end of LMN.
Observethatfor constructing
the end pieces to LMN, one merelyhas to know
thetop end of thetriangleLMN. The rule is this: producethesides LN and MN
to thelevelk+ 1 and join theend-pointsto thepointsof thesides on thelevelk- 1.
If we start with a complete set of elementarytriangles of Ak or of their
parallel translatesand apply bisectionand expansion to each of these triangles,
we shall arrive at a set of parallel translates of all elementarytrianglesof Ak+1
and introducean increase in area at most equal to twice the sum of the areas
of the top ends of these triangles.(The "at most" is necessaryhere because of
possible overlapping.) The sum of the areas of the top ends of a completeset of
elementarytrianglesis equal to the area of A1,so that the total increase in area

is at most21A1.

This conclusion leads immediatelyto the complete solution of our problem.


We start with the triangleA2=7 2 and apply to it the bisection and expansion
which will transformit into parallel translatesof the elementarytrianglesofA3.
Applyingthe same operation to each of the new triangleswe shall get a set of
parallel translates of elementarytrianglesof A4, and so on.
Afterp-2 such operations we shall arrive at a set of parallel translatesof
elementarytrianglesofA,= A. As the incrementof the area at each operationis
< 21A1,, the area of the finalfigurewill be
4

<?IA, I+ 2(p -2)1 Al=I-+

p2

-+2(p -2)-2(p -2)( AljI


p2
p2

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704

[September

THE KAKEYA PROBLEM

Taking p> 16/e we shall get the area <e/8. With similar translationsfor the
other 3n elementarytriangleswe shall get the total area covered by the translates <e/2. Adding 4n -1 joins of total area <e/2 we shall get a figureof area
<e on which the unit segmentcan turn round through3600,which represents
a solultionof the problem.

A2=22

(a)

2;3

A3

(b)

(c)
FIG. 13

(a)

2 A4

(c)

(b)

FIG. 14

In orderto visualize the finalpictureof the set of translatesofthe elementary


trianglesof A we shall go throughthe process of its constructionstep by step.
Figure 13 shows the beginningof the process of its construction:(a) is the triangle A2=r2, we call it the set 22; (b) shows the resultsof bisection and expansion, it is the set 3 of parallel translatesof elementarytrianglesofA3; (c) represents A3 divided into elementarytriangles.
Figure 14 shows the second operation: (a) is 3, (b) is the resultof bisection
and expansion of the two trianglesof 3, it is a set 24 of translatesof foureletriangles.
of A4, (C) iS A4 dividedintoelementary
triangles
mentary
SimilarlyFigure 15 shows the thirdoperation: (a) is 24, (b) is the result of
bisectionand expansionof each of the fourtrianglesof24, it is a set 15 of parallel
translates of elementarytrianglesof A5, (c) is the triangleA5 divided into elementarytriangles.
We continue in the same way arrivingfinallyat 2p,.
Pictures of consecutive 2 become more and more complicated. Observe
however that forevery k> 2, 24+1 is obtained from1, only by constructingthe
end-pieces of the trianglesbelongingto 2k. These end-piecesare constructedon
the top trianglesof2Aand lie betweenthe levels k -1 and k+ 1. Thus each stage

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1963]

705

THE KAKEYA PROBLEM

of constructionis confinedonly to the two top strips and there is no need for
tracing fullyall elementarytriangles.Figure 16 representsthe process.
The figure1, of overlapping triangleshas been called by Schoenberg the
Perron tree; we shall call it the Perron-Schoenbergtree. The processof its constructioncan best be described as the "growthof the Perron-Schoenbergtree"
(see Fig. 16).

24
(b)

(a)

(C)
FIG. 15

22

24

23

26

FIG. 16

REMARK. Observe that because of joins our domain is multiplyconnected,


hence therearises a most interestingquestion: What will the resultbe ifwe confineourselves only to simplyconnected domains?
I should like to say in conclusiona fewwordsabout the place of the Kakeya
Problem in mathematics.It is one of the most intriguingproblemsin the class
of extremalproblems.On the otherhand it is moreimportantas a twinproblem
to the followingproblemof fundamentalnature in the geometryof generalsets
of points.

of all directionsin a plaize,


Is the plane measure of a set of unit-segments
boundedfrombelowbya positivenumber?
It is this twin problemthat I was concernedwith in the paper mentionedat
the beginningof this lecture.The answer arrivedat was negative.
In fact, I constructedsuch a set having plane measure zero. At that timeone
could not suspect that this result was only a firstpenetrationinto a much

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706

A REMARK ON THE KAKEYA PROBLEM

[September

greaterproblem.My later study of the geometryof sets of points has led me to


the solution of the general problemon the plane measure of line-sets.
The study of point-setshas been carried out on the basis of measure. The
most interestingclass appears to be the class of sets of finiteHausdorfflinear
measure. A generalset of that kind is the sum of a regularsetand of an irregular
one, a set being regularor irregularaccordingas at almostall of its points the
densityexistsor does notexist.The two classes are fundamentallydifferent.
The
measure of a set of lines is definedby the measureof the set of the poles with
respect to a fixedcircle,and a line-setis regularor irregularaccordingas its set
of poles is regularor irregular.The problemon the plane measure of a line-set
consideredas a point-setis solved by the followingresult.
THEOREM. The plane measureof any irregularsetis 0, and of any regularone
is cc.

The constructionof irregularsets containinglines of all directionspresents


no difficulty.
The occasion of makinga filmmay stimulateothersto workon the Kakeya
problem. I want only to express a hope that this new work will be crownedby
success.

A REMARK ON THE KAKEYA PROBLEM


A. A. BLANK, New YorkUniversity

Besicovitch [1] poses the question,what is the solutionof the Kakeya problem ifwe restrictourselvesto simplyconnecteddomains. It is known,forexample, that it is possible to turn a unit segment through3600 within the threecorneredhypocycloidof area wr/8.Insofar as I am aware, no simplyconnected
domain of lesserarea is knownto satisfythe Kakeya criterion.Here we demonstrate the existenceof a class of domains, regular star polygons,which satisfy
the Kakeya criterionand forwhichthereexistareas exceedingir/8by arbitrarily
little. Is wr/8
then the minimumarea forsimplyconnecteddomains, or at least,
forstar-likedomains? If so, we have here a curious instance of a domain functional which is minimizedin two entirelydifferent
ways.
We constructa sequence of star polygonsin the followingmanner. First, a
regular (2n+1)-gon is inscribedin a circle of radius r<1/2. Each side of the
(2n + 1)-gon is then used as the base of an exteriorisoscelestrianglewith vertex
at unit distance fromthe diametricallyopposite vertexof the (2n+1)-gon. The
domain of interestis the union of the inscribedpolygonwiththe 2n+ 1 triangles
attached to the sides. In Fig. 1 we depict the case n =3.
Let us denote the center of the circle by 0 and label the vertices of the
isosceles triangles by V0, V1, * *, V2., V2f+, * * *, in counter-clockwise order,
whereifi _j (mod 2n + 1) then V-= V,. The diametricallyopposite vertexof the

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