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MY FAVORITE NUMBERS

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John Baez
September 15, 2008
The Rankin Lectures
Supported by the Glasgow Mathematical Journal Trust

Different numbers have different ‘personalities’.
The number 5 is difficult, angular, and awkward.
For example, there are regular polygons
with any number of sides:

But 5 is the first that refuses to tile the plane.
Why?

You can tile the plane with equilateral triangles:

You can also do it with squares:

You can do it with regular hexagons:

Regular polygons with 7 or more sides are clearly too fat,
so they’re excused.

But pentagons don’t work for another reason! There are small gaps: Indeed. . a periodic tiling of the plane with 5-fold symmetry is impossible.

in 1972 Roger Penrose invented nonperiodic tilings with perfect 5-fold symmetry: .However.

..or ‘approximate’ 5-fold symmetry: ..

But in the 1980s. physicists and chemists discovered ‘quasicrystals’ with approximate 5-fold symmetry: .Periodic crystals with 5-fold symmetry are impossible.

it was noticed that some Islamic tile designs have 5-fold symmetry – beating Penrose to the punch by several centuries! From the I’timid al-Daula mausoleum in Agra. built in 1622: . India.In 2007.

Iran.From the Darb-i Imam shrine in Isfahan. also built in the 1600s: .

5-fold symmetry in 3 dimensions is easy. These pentagons: curl up to form a dodecahedron.If we don’t demand periodic patterns. a 3d shape with 5-fold symmetry: .

The ‘Pariacoto virus’ contains a dodecahedron of RNA: The first gray line is 10 nanometers long (10−8 meters).Nature takes advantage of this possibility. . The second is 5 nanometers.

The smallest known dodecahedron is ‘dodecahedrane’: Chemical formula: C20H20 .

but it’s recently been made in the lab: .Dodecahedrane hasn’t been found in nature.

Soot and interstellar dust are full of carbon in the form of ‘buckyballs’: .

But the oldest human-made dodecahedron is. of course. . Scottish: It dates back to around 2000 BC! Nobody knows what these carved stone balls were used for.

The ancient Greeks reinvented the dodecahedron – perhaps inspired by iron pyrite. or ‘fool’s gold’: .

But fool’s gold cannot have 5-fold symmetry – no crystal can! What you just saw was a ‘pyritohedron’: .

. . and Pythagoreans! Pythagoras of Samos (about 582–507 BC) The Pythagoreans may have invented the regular dodecahedron by ‘perfecting’ the pyrite crystals they saw.The Greek colonies in Sicily had a lot of pyrite..

The Pythagoreans were also fascinated by pentagrams: .

in three different sizes: .The pentagram contains 20 triangles with the same proportions.

Φ 1 = Φ+1 Φ Φ2 = Φ + 1 .

.6180339 . . 2 This is called the golden ratio. . . Φ2 = Φ + 1 = 2.6180339 . 1 Φ = 1+Φ 1 Φ = Φ − 1 = 0.Φ2 = Φ + 1 has this solution: √ 1+ 5 Φ= = 1. . .6180339 . .

It seems the Greeks liked ‘continued fractions’: 74 10 = 2 + 32 32 1 = 2 + 32 10 = 2+ 1 2 3+ 10 = 2+ 1 1 3+ 10 2 = 2 + 11 3+ 5 .

The continued fraction of Φ never ends: 1 Φ = 1+Φ = 1 + 11 1+ Φ = 1+ 1 1+ 1 1 1+ Φ = 1+ 1 1+ 1 1+ 1 1 1+ Φ = etcetera. So... Φ is irrational! .

We can also use the pentagram to see that the continued fraction expansion for Φ never ends. Did the Pythagoreans know this? .

.

..1 .. 1 1+ 1 2+ 1 1+ 1 2+ . any irrational square root gets stuck in a loop: √ √ 2=1+ 3=1+ 1 2+ 1 2+ 1 2+ 1 2+ .In fact.1 .

1 .. Ironically. this makes it the ‘most irrational number’: the hardest to approximate by simple rational numbers. Why? .But the golden ratio is the simplest: Φ=1+ 1 1+ 1 1+ 1 1+ 1 1+ .

For example. This works really well when we quit after hitting a really big number.1 .. take a look at π: π =3+ 1 7+ 1 15+ 1 1+ 1 292+ . .We get the best rational approximations of a number by taking its continued fraction expansion and quitting at some point.

It matches 6 decimals of π = 3. This approximation was discovered in 480 AD by the Chinese mathematician Zu Chongzhi! . so this approximation is great: 3+ 1 7+ 1 1 15+ 1 = 355 113 = 3..1428..... so this approximation is pretty good: 1 22 3+ = = 3..15 is pretty big. 7 7 292 is really big.1415929.1415926.

we must go to 1597 987 . Φ: 1 + 11 = 21 = 2 1 + 11 = 32 = 1.6 We’re slowly creeping our way to Φ = 1. .666. ..6180339 .5 1+ 1 1+ 1 1+ 1 1 = 53 = 1.. To get 6 decimals right. 1+ 1 1+ 1 1+ 1 1+ 1 1 1+ 1 = 85 = 1. .But now try the golden ratio.

there’s very little resonance: the ‘awkardness’ of the number 5 strikes again. The same is true for dust in the rings of Saturn.Two piano strings resonate when they vibrate at frequencies related by a simple rational number... or anything! But for the ratio Φ. .

.Yet another example: we can’t fill 3d space with dodecahedra.

But we can add another layer: .

.and another..... .

.and another..... .

and one last dodecahedron. .. for a total of 120.....

Let’s go take a look. We can imagine living in this 3d space and looking around. It would be a ‘3-sphere’ divided into 120 dodecahedra.. . We obtain the ‘120-cell’: a 4-dimensional regular solid! Its surface is 3-dimensional..Then we can fold them up into the fourth dimension.

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here’s an different way to get the 120-cell from the dodecahedron. The dodecahedron has 5 × 12 = 60 rotational symmetries. Is this a coincidence? No! . since a rotation can carry a face to any of the 12 faces in 5 different ways: 60 is half of 120.Finally.

and we can rotate these 1/5 of a turn either clockwise or counterclockwise. . it comes back to the way it was. Then the dodecahedron would have 2 × 60 = 120 rotational symmetries! Each of these 120 symmetries has 12 nearest neighbors: the dodecahedron has 6 axes going through opposite faces. but they do after turning them around twice. But suppose it were a ‘spinor’ — a particle like an electron or proton.If you turn a dodecahedron around 360◦. These don’t come back to where they were after turning them around 360◦ once.

each with 12 nearest neighbors: So.Similarly the 120-cell has 120 dodecahedra. the 120-cell is a picture of the rotational symmetries of a ‘spinor dodecahedron’ ! .

. = √ √  5+ 5 1+ 5  e2π/5 − 2 2 I dedicate this lecture to him! . Robert Alexander Rankin went deeper. . editing papers by Ramanujan with shocking formulas like this: s 1 1+ e−2π e−4π 1+ e−6π 1+ −8π 1+ e −10π 1+ e .I’ve only skimmed the surface in this talk.

..APPENDIX: THE MOST IRRATIONAL NUMBER In 1891. Adolf Hurwitz showed every irrational x has infinitely many rational approximations that are ‘good’ in the sense that: p 1 |x − | < √ q 5q 2 We can’t make the constant √1 any smaller. thanks to the 5 case x = Φ! Let’s see how it goes..

8541 · √ 1 1 + 1 1 = 32 1+ |Φ − 32 | ' 1.9787 · √ 1 5·32 1+ 1 1+ 1+ 1 1+ 1 1+ 1 1 1+ 1 = 85 1 1+ 1 1+ 1 1+ 1 1 1+ 1 = 13 8 |Φ − 85 | ' 1.9969 · 8 5·82 .056 · √ 1 5·12 5·22 1 1+ 5 1 = 3 1+ 1 1 |Φ − 53 | ' 0.1 + 11 = 21 |Φ − 21 | ' 0.008 · √ 1 5·52 √1 |Φ − 13 | ' 0.

Net for the dodecahedron created by ‘Cyp’.com/cgi/thing?id=737788.CREDITS AND NOTES 1. 8.com/2006/ 10/04/irrational-memories/. Regular polygons. Penrose tiling created by ‘xJaM’. from Wikipedia article on Hexagonal Tiling. from the Wikipedia article Triangular Tiling. from the Wikipedia article Penrose Tiling. SoftCurve 4-inch nickel number 5. http://asymptotia. Triangular tiling created by ‘Fibonacci’.polyvore. 6. 7. available from Home Depot. 3. http: //www. 2. 4. source unknown. 5. from the Wikipedia article Dodecahedron. Penrose tiling created by Clifford Johnson. Square tiling created by ‘Fibonacci’. from the Wikipedia article Square Tiling. . Hexagonal tiling created by ‘Fibonacci’.

Lu and Paul J. from Peter J. Diffraction pattern of icosahedral quasicrystal. Lu and Paul J. . Decagonal and quasicrystalline tilings in medieval Islamic architecture.harvard.cornell.nature. also from Peter J.com/Stella. software3d. 12. http://www. Pariacoto virus. from the Wikipedia article Dodecahedrane. Science 315 (2007).lassp. The structure of Pariacoto virus reveals a dodecahedral cage of duplex RNA. Nature Structural Biology 8 (2001). Ron Lifschitz. 1106–1110. 13.physics.edu/lifshitz/quasicrystals.pdf. http://www.9. http://www. Steinhardt. Dodecahedrane created by ‘DaMocles-WS0506’. Photo of Darb-i Imam shrine. 10. Steinhardt.html. Net for dodecahedron (see above) and picture of dodecahedron created by ‘Tomruen’ using Robert Webb’s Great Stella software.html. Photo of I’timad al-Daula mausoleum and mathematical reconstruction. Liang Tang et al.com/nsmb/journal/v8/n1/pdf/ nsb0101_77. 77–83.edu/~plu/publications/ 11. http: //www. 14.

17. Buckyball created by Michael Str¨ ock. 20.15.minerals. from Michael Atiyah and Paul Sutcliffe. http://www. http:// www-history.edu/dutchs/symmetry/isometuc. Polyhedra in physics. and as many pentagonal faces as a dodecahedron has pentagons (namely 12). Carved stone balls. from Hershel Friedman’s webpage Pyrite. It’s the pattern used in a soccer ball.st-andrews. Pyritohedron. 18.html. from Steven Dutch’s webpage Building Isometric Crystals with Unit Cells. chemistry and geometry. from the Wikipedia article Dodecahedrane. from the Wikipedia article Buckyball.uwgb. Pythagoras. 19. A buckyball is a truncated icosahedron.mcs. available as arxiv:/mathph/0303071. http://www. htm. 16.ac.uk/history/PictDisplay/Pythagoras. . from Mactutor webpage Portraits of Pythagoras. Pyrite.htm. net/mineral/sulfides/pyrite/pyrite. so it has as many hexagonal faces as an icosahedron has triangles (namely 20). Dodecahedrane synthesis pictures created by ‘V8rik’.

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi. Equations. John Baez. 22. 24. Broadway Books. http://www. 26. scanned by J¨ orgen Nixdorf. The World’s Most Astonishing Number. The Mathematics of Plato’s Academy: A New Reconstruction.21. 28. See the Wikipedia article Golden ratio. Equations. Pentagram with nested pentagrams. from the Wikipedia article Pentagram. . John Baez. 23. James Dolan. Pentagram from Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa’s book Libri Tres de Occulta Philosophia. 2002. For a critical review of this book see George Markowsky. New York. Pentagram with golden triangles. org/notices/200503/rev-markowsky.pdf. Pentagram with golden triangles. Press. For a history of the golden ratio that requires little knowledge of math to enjoy. John Baez. try Mario Livio. The golden ratio. 1987.ams. For fascinating theories about the Greeks’ use of continued fractions see David Fowler. 27. 25. John Baez. Oxford U.

30. John Baez. New York. 1980. See the Wikipedia articles Pi and Zu Chongzhi. 35. 36. . Equations. Second stage of 120-cell from Andrew Weimholt’s webpage. Springer.jpl.com/andrew/ polytope. 32. http:// photojournal.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA08306.29. or for much more. Picture of the Cassini Division in Saturn’s rings by NASA. First stage of foldout model of 120-cell from Andrew Weimholt’s webpage Regular 4d Polytope Foldouts. Third stage of 120-cell from Andrew Weimholt’s webpage. This gap in the rings is formed by a resonance with Saturn’s moon Mimas: particles at this distance go around Saturn twice in the time it takes Mimas to go around once. See the Wikipedia article Continued fraction. History of Continued Fractions and Pad´ e Approximations. See the Wikipedia article Rings of Saturn. 31. 33.shtml. 34. John Baez. http://www. John Baez. 37. Equations. Equations.weimholt. Claude Brezinski.

46. 45. 40.38.html. Fourth stage of 120-cell from Andrew Weimholt’s webpage. from the Wikipedia article Dodecahedron. ‘Rubber’ picture of 120-cell created by Fritz Obermeyer using Jenn software. from the Wikipedia article 120-Cell. http://www. 43. 42. http://www. Dodecahedron created by Cyp. Metallic picture of 120-cell created by ‘Tomruen’ using Robert Webb’s Great Stella software. Text.math. 44. Fifth stage of 120-cell from Andrew Weimholt’s webpage.com/Stella. Bubble picture of 120-cell created by Fritz Obermeyer using Jenn software.cmu.software3d. I give a proof of this ‘spinor dodecahedron’ description of the 120-cell in the second appendix of my talk on the number 8. . Bubble picture of 120-cell created by Fritz Obermeyer using Jenn software. 41.edu/~fho/jenn/polytopes/. Text. op. John Baez. John Baez. cit. 39.

which is interesting even though it attributes this result to Lagrange.com/Stella. See Eric Weisstein’s Mathworld article Hurwitz’s irrational number theorem. 48. http://www.html.47. Small stellated dodecahedra created by ‘Tomruen’ using Robert Webb’s Great Stella software. . See Eric Weisstein’s Mathworld article Ramanujan Continued Fractions.software3d.