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Perimeters and Areas

A Walkabout on Some Ideas we are Familiar with – or we think we are

S. Srinivasan

Gabriel’s Horn
October 21, 2009/October 31, 2010
Perimeters and Areas

1. An Introduction of Sorts to the Issues at Hand

If somebody asked you, when is a perimeter greater than area, you will dismiss it as a
useless question. Why does the question not make any sense? Firstly we are comparing
unequal things, like apples and oranges, or like comparing distance and speed; or weight
and height. Obviously you cannot say anything if you are asked which is greater: distance
100 km or the speed value 200 km per hour? Or is a 100 kg man greater than a 6 ft

But my dear young reader, do ask ‘useless’ questions. For example, can we have negative
perimeter and positive area? Or positive perimeter and negative area? For example, when
length and/or breadth of a rectangle is negative, the previous situations can be possible.
By the way, can area and perimeter be both negative? The typical response of your
friends to such questions will be, ‘Brother/Sister, which world are you living?’ You can
ignore such ‘friends’ (who needs enemies?), and explore such questions regardless – you
may find gems along the way, and even if you do not find, the journey itself is

Now who says, length cannot be negative? In our imagination anything is possible. You
do not have to be Alice in Wonderland for that. You can have negative markings in
exams, negative energies, negative bank balance (which may be positive sometimes) and
negative attitude to negative personalities (that is positive often). So why not negative
lengths and negative perimeters and areas?

When normally one puts one’s name, the reader gets the impression that it is the original work of the
author. In my case, I have mostly compiled available information which I found interesting. My role is of
the tourist guide, “Look! Here is a Taj Mahal/a Mount Everest!”
True I myself do not know what is the meaning of negative perimeter and length – at
least a meaning I can convince you with. But I welcome suggestions. Meaning is
something you give to things.

I have done some exploration of the useless question when is perimeter greater than area
– but since I am not sure your editor will publish it, I invite you to look at this link where I have
uploaded it.

2. Figures with Equal Perimeters: The Isoperimetric Problem

Now let us ask a useful question so-called: When is a long perimeter not desirable?
For instance when it is a country or a farmer who has to keep off intruders. Or when I
want a variety of landscape.

Guessing Area from the Perimeter?

Such a misconception is held by geographers who infer the size of a city from the
length of its walls. And the participants in a division of land have sometimes misled
their partners in the distribution by misusing the longer boundary line; having
acquired a lot with a shorter boundary and so, while getting more than their fellow
colonists, have gained a reputation for superior honesty.

(G. R. Morrow, Proclus: A Commentary on the First Book of Euclid’s Elements, Princeton University
Press, Princeton, 1970)

In fact, it is an interesting exercise to consider: if you are given a fixed amount of area
to choose from, but the length of perimeter is your choice. How long a perimeter will
you choose? How long can the perimeter be? It can be pretty long theoretically – even
as long as the distance to the moon and back. But we can say for sure one thing: that
if you choose a circle with the given area, then that will have the shortest perimeter!

Quoted in Viktor Blasjo. “The Evolution of ...The Isoperimetric Problem,” The Mathematical Association
of America Monthly 112, June–July 2005.
Similarly, if you are given the perimeter length, and asked to choose an area, how big
or small an area will you choose? Again of the various choices, only a circle with the
given perimeter will have the largest area!

We summarise the above in two equivalent statements that can be proved though

a) Among all planar shapes with the same perimeter the circle has the largest area.

b) Among all planar shapes with the same area the circle has the shortest perimeter.

Figure above: All same perimeters – but the circle has the largest area

The above 2 facts were recognized by the Greeks but the proof took almost 1500 years
including with two of the Bernoulli brothers fighting on the issue. Queen Dido’s problem
is of a similar nature (see box).

In fact the relationship between the perimeter p and area A of a simple closed curve on a
plane is often represented by the inequality:

p2/4A ≥ π or p2/4π ≥ A
with the equality holding only for the circle. (Area of circle = πr2 and perimeter = 2πr.)
In fact this is the famous isoperimetric inequality.

Similar facts can be proved in 3 dimensions: the sphere has the greatest surface area if the
volume is fixed.

The Legend of Queen Dido and the Isoperimetric Problem

Dido is known best as the queen of Carthage who died for love of Aeneas. The famous
Dido’s problem is based on a passage from Virgil's Aeneid:

"The Kingdom you see is Carthage, the Tyrians, the town of Agenor;

But the country around is Libya, no folk to meet in war.

Dido, who left the city of Tyre to escape her brother,

Rules here--a long a labyrinthine tale of wrong

Is hers, but I will touch on its salient points in order....

Dido, in great disquiet, organised her friends for escape.

They met together, all those who harshly hated the tyrant

Or keenly feared him: they seized some ships which chanced to be ready...

They came to this spot, where to-day you can behold the mighty

Battlements and the rising citadel of New Carthage,

And purchased a site, which was named 'Bull's Hide' after the bargain

By which they should get as much land as they could enclose with a bull's hide."

(italics author’s)

Dido was the daughter of the king of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre. The legend tells
us that when the king died, Dido's brother, Pygmalion, killed Dido's wealthy husband,
Sychaeus. Then the ghost of Sychaeus revealed to Dido what had happened to him. He
also told Dido where he had hidden his treasure. Dido, knowing how dangerous Tyre was
with her brother still alive, took the treasure, fled, and wound up in Carthage, in modern
Tunisia. Dido bartered with the locals, offering a substantial amount of wealth in
exchange for what she could contain within the skin of a bull. When they agreed to what
seemed an exchange greatly to their advantage, Dido showed how clever she really was.
She cut the hide into strips and laid it out in a semi-circle with the sea forming the other
side. Dido then ruled Carthage as queen. The Trojan prince Aeneas met Dido on his way
from Troy to Lavinium. When he left her to fulfill his destiny, Dido was devastated and
committed suicide. Aeneas saw her again, in the Underworld in Book VI of the Aeneid.

And what is Dido’s Problem?

To find the figure bounded by a line, which has the maximum area for a given perimeter
– this is called Queen Dido’s problem after the story above. The solution is a semicircle.
A whole lot of isoperimetric problems (isoperimetric means of equal perimeter) are
fashioned after this ancient problem. One of which we mentioned above: among all
planar shapes with the same perimeter the circle has the largest area.

Source: and

That is not all3:

1. Among all triangles with the same perimeter, the equilateral one has the largest
2. Among all quadrilaterals with the same perimeter, the square has the largest area.

This summary is from the website

3. Among all rectangles with the same perimeter, the square has the largest area.
(follows from 2 above).
4. This latter fact is equivalent to √ab ≤ (a+b)/2, geometric mean of two numbers is
not greater than their arithmetic mean.
5. Among any finite number of regular polygons with the same perimeter, the one
with the largest number of sides has the largest area.

That is if a hexagon and a pentagon have the same perimeter, the hexagon will
have the greater area.

6. Among all polygons (with number of sides fixed) with the same perimeter the
regular one has the largest area. (This is known as Zenodorus’ Theorem).

That is if two octagons with the same perimeter are given, one with all sides equal
and the other all sides not equal, the one with all sides equal will have the greater
area. Naturally of all polygons of the same perimeter, the circle will have the
greater area – as a circle is a polygon of infinite sides.

7. Each of the statements above has an equivalent where the area is given.
8. Among all plane curves of fixed length with fixed endpoints, a circular arc
encloses a maximum area between it and the line joining its endpoints (see figure
below as example)

Figure above: Arc DEF and ABC are equal but it is the semicircle which has the
greater area
The Wisdom of Bees

Pappus of Alexandria (ca 300 A.D.) wrote:

Bees, then, know just this fact which is useful to them, that the hexagon is greater than
the square and the triangle and will hold more honey for the same expenditure of material
in constructing each. But we, claiming a greater share of wisdom than the bees, will
investigate a somewhat wider problem, namely that, of all equilateral and equiangular
plane figures having the same perimeter, that which has the greater number of angles is
always greater, and the greatest of them all is the circle having its perimeter equal to

Is it possible to have infinite perimeter but a finite area? Or zero area but infinite
perimeter? Both seem impossible but are actually possible. Here is how. (I do not know
any case of infinite area and finite or zero perimeter – suggestions welcome from

3. Koch Snowflake: A Case of Infinite Perimeter but Finite Area!4

The Koch Snowflake was created by the Swedish mathematician Niels Fabian Helge von
Koch, in his 1904 paper entitled "Sur une courbe continue sans tangente, obtenue par une
construction géométrique élémentaire."

Here is how we construct the snowflake named after him.

The rather clear presentation format in Tables 1 and 2 form is due to ‘Series Ideas Add Up to Interesting
Mathematics’ by Tim Howard, Columbus State University. Thanks also to

Niels Fabian Helge von Koch

Step 1: Start with a triangle - a collection of 3 line segments each of length, say, 1. The
initial perimeter is 3 and the initial area is √3/8. (Area of triangle of side a = half the base
multiplied by height. Here base = a; height = √3a/2. Area = √3 a2/8 = √3/8 for a = 1.)

Figure Koch 1

Step 2: The total length of the 3 sides of the triangle – or its perimeter – is 3. Divide each
side into 3 equal parts. Keep the extremes as it is. And replace the middle one by a
"tent" formed by the sides of the equilateral triangle formed on that middle segment as
the base (see figure Koch 2 below). Now you will see that each of the smaller segments
are of length 1/3; we created 4 lengths of 1/3 each from one of the sides – therefore their
total length will be 4/3. For all 3 sides together and the whole curve that now consists of
12 segments has the length of 4. The area increases by 1/3rd of the original triangle.
[Each new tent adds √3/72 and there are 3 new additions of area – therefore the total
addition to the area is √3/24 which adds thus 1/3rd more to the original area√3/8. And
incidentally the above figures are called Koch snowflakes.]

Therefore at the end of iteration 1, we have Perimeter: 4 (times initial side length);
and Area: 4/3 (times initial area)

Figure Koch 2

Step 3: On the next iteration we apply the same procedure to each of these 12 segments.
There are going to be 48 (= 12×4) of the smaller ones, each of length 1/9. The total length
of the curve is then 48×1/9 = 16/3. So at the end of Step 3: we have the Perimeter =
16/3 (times initial side length) and Area = 40/27 (times initial area).

Figure Koch 3

The process continues. On iteration number n, the curve consists of 3×4n line segments,
each of length 1/3n, to the total perimeter at stage n = 3×(4/3)n. Since 4/3 > 1, the total
length grows without bound. The limit curve (which does exist) known as Koch's
snowflake does not have a finite length even though it is located in a bounded region
around the original triangle.

Step 4:
Koch snowflake
Iterations: 3
Perimeter: 64/9 (times initial side length)
Area: 376/243 (times initial area)

Figure Koch 4

Step 5:
Koch snowflake
Iterations: 4
Perimeter: 256/27 (times initial side length)
Area: 3448/2187 (times initial area)

Figure Koch 5

Step 6:
Koch snowflake
Iterations: 5
Perimeter: 1024/81 (times initial side length)
Area: 31288/19683 (times initial area)

Figure Koch 6

As n moves towards infinity, Perimeter tends to infinity and Area becomes 8/5 (times
initial area).

We summarize:

Figure Number of Area Perimeter


3 P0 = 3
3 A0 =

A1 = A0 + 3 A0 (1 / 3) 2 P1 = 4(3)(1 / 3)
= A0 [1 + 1 / 3] = 3(4 / 3)

A2 = A1 + 4(3) A0 (1 / 3) 4 P2 = 4 2 (3)(1 / 3) 2
4 x 4 x 3 = 4 (3)
= A0 1 + (1 / 3) + 4(1 / 3) 3 ] = 3(4 / 3) 2

1 + 1 / 3 + 4(1 / 3) 3 + L 
Stage n 4n x 3 A0   Pn = 3(4 / 3) n
 + 4 n−1 (1 / 3) 2n −1 
2 3
Snowflake ∞ ∞

Table 1: Area and Perimeter of the Koch Snowflake

2 3
How did we arrive at the area of snowflake as ?
1 + 1 / 3 + 4(1 / 3)3 + L 
In summing up the series, A0   we use the property of an
 + 4 n−1 (1 / 3) 2 n−1 + ...∞ 
infinite geometric series:

Sum of 1 + r + r2 + r3 + r4 + + rn + … as n tends to infinity = 1/(1-r) with the proviso

In mathematical notation, it is written as


r i
1− r

1 1 1 1
For instance, 1 + + + +L = = 3 / 2 as here, r = 1/3.
3 9 27 1 −1/ 3

In our case, we need the sum of the series:

1 + 1 / 3 + 4(1 / 3)3 + L 
A0  
 + 4 n−1 (1 / 3) 2 n−1 + L ∞ 

where A0 = √3/4 = the area of equilateral triangle of side of length 1.

The term in the brackets is rewritten as: 1 + 1/3[1 + 4(1/3)2 + 42(1/3)4 + 43(1/3)6 +
44(1/3)8 + … + 4n-1 x (1/3)2n-2+ … to infinity]

= 1 + 1/3[1/(1- 4/9)] = 1 + [(1/3) x (9/5)] = 1 + 3/5 = 8/5 [as here r = (1/3)2x 4 =4/9]

2 3
A0 x (8/5) = (√3/4) x (8/5) =

4. The Sierpinski Gasket (also called the Sierpinski Triangle): A Case of Zero Area
but Infinite Perimeter

The Sierpinski Gasket is named after the Polish mathematician Wacław Sierpiński who
described it in 1915. One of his students said of him: “Sierpinski had an exceptionally
good health and a cheerful nature. ... He could work under any conditions. ... He did not
like any corrections to his papers. When someone suggested a correction he added a line
to it: 'Mr X remarked that ...' He was a creative mind and liked creative mathematics. He
was the greatest and most productive of Polish mathematicians.”

Waclaw Sierpinski

Here is how we construct the triangle named after him. We begin with a black equilateral
triangle and repeat the process. At each stage, we remove an equilateral triangle formed
by connecting the midpoints of the sides of each blacktriangle.

Figure 1: Constructing the Sierpenski Triangle

We will see that the figure so generated will have area approaching zero – indeed its area
is zero, while the perimeter is infinite – the infinite series (below) with each term 3/2
times bigger than the previous one tends to infinity. We assume the side of the first black
triangle is equal to one unit length.

Figure Area (of the Black Shaded Part) Perimeter

A0 = P0 = 3

3 P1 = 3 + 3(1/2)
A1 = A0
4 = 3 + 3/2

2 P2 = 3 + 3/2 + 3(3) ¼
A2 = (3 / 4) A0
= 3 + 3/2 + (3/2)2

A3 = (3 / 4) A0
P3 = 3 + 3/2 + (3/2)2 + 9(3)(1/8)
= 3 + 3/2 + (3/2)2 + (3/2)3

n n
Stage n An = (3 / 4) A0 Pn = 3 + 3 / 2 + L + (3 / 2)
Sierpenski triangle 0 ∞
Table 2: Area and Perimeter of Sierpenski Triangle

Fig: A View of Sierpenski Triangle after many iterations

5. An Object of Finite Volume and Infinite Surface Area5

Our first reaction is how this is possible. We will show below how this indeed can be so.

A View of Gabriel’s Cake

This explanation is due to Julian F. Fleron, ‘Gabriel’s Wedding Cake’, The College Mathematics Journal,
January 1999, Volume 30, Number 1, pp. 35-38. Normally the calculations are for Gabriel’s Horn (see
picture below) but that involves calculus and is not convincing as much as the cake!.
Another View of Gabriel’s Cake

Firstly what is the object? Each layer is a cylinder. And cylinders of narrower sizes
stacked one upon the other infinitely. But the height of all the cylinders is the same.

In Gabriel’s cake above, each layer or a step is a cylinder. The height is one unit of length
(cm or meter or foot). The radius of the bottom most cylinder is 1. For the cylinders
which are stacked above, the height remains the same that is one unit; but the radius
reduces thus: 1, ½, 1/3, ¼, 1/5 … 1/n… on endlessly.

Let us do the volume calculations:

Volume of bottommost cylinder: πr2h = π x 1 x1 x 1 = π (as r = 1, h =1)

Volume of cylinder 2nd from bottom = π x 1/2 x 1/2 x 1 = π/4 = π/22 (as r = 1/2, h =1)
Volume of cylinder 3rd from bottom = π x 1/3 x 1/3 x 1 = π/9 = π/32 (as r = 1/3, h =1)

… and so on, and therefore,

Volume of cylinder nth from bottom = π x 1/n x 1/n x 1 = π/n2 (as r = 1/n, h =1)

So total volume of all cylinders = π (1+ 1 /22 +1 /42 + 1/52 + 1/62 + 1/72 + 1/82 + 1/92 + …
+1/n2 + … till infinity) = π x (π 2 /6) = π3/6.

The last result [that is 1+ 1 /22 +1 /42 … +1/n2 + … till infinity = π2 /6] is due to the magic
of the great Euler - we are not deriving it here however - a result all the more remarkable
because it leaves you gaping how on earth a set of numbers got related to something to do
with π which we know as the ratio of circumference to the diameter of a circle!

Calculating the Areas

Now the ‘uncovered’ area of only the top part of the bottom most cylinder (let us call it
cylinder 1) is π x 1 x 1 minus area of the bottom part of the cylinder immediately above
(that is cylinder 2) which is π x 1 /22 which gives us π x (1- 1 /22).

Similarly for the next cylindrical top of cylinder 2 (that is the one above the bottommost
one), the uncovered area will be π x (1 /22 - 1 /32).

So the uncovered area of the nth cylinder from the bottom is π x [(1/(n2) - (1/(n+1)2].

Adding (you may notice that the 2nd term in the expression for the lower cylinder cancels
out with the first term of the one above), you get total area of the top uncovered parts of
the infinite object = π. In a way you could have guessed it as if you flatten all the
cylinders, the uncovered area of the tops of the cylinder would be just the area of the top
parts = the area of the top part of the bottom most cylinder!

Now let us calculate the areas of the curved surfaces of the cylinders.

The area of the curved surface of the bottom most cylinder, that is cylinder 1, = 2πr x h =
2π x 1 x 1 = 2π. And for the cylinder 2 that is immediately above (remembering the height h
=1 in all cylinders), the area is 2π x ½; and of the one further above, cylinder 3, the area is 2π x
1/3; and the area of the curved surface of the nth cylinder above is 2π x 1/n. Thus adding up the
areas of the curved surface of all cylinders equals 2π x (1 + ½ + 1/3 + ¼ + 1/5 + 1/6 + …+ 1/n
+ … onwards to infinity). The series (1 + ½ + 1/3 + ¼ + 1/5 + 1/6 + …+ 1/n + … onwards to
infinity) can be easily shown (see box below) to be infinite. So the sum of all areas of the curved
surfaces of the stacked cylinders is infinite!

So total area, of the entire object, the area of the top parts of which is π, plus area of the
curved surfaces, is also infinite.

So here we have an infinite solid object which has finite volume but infinite surface area!

You will not have trouble eating it but you will have problem covering the cake, sides
and all, with icing or chocolate!

Proof that the harmonic series grows towards infinity

[Due to the French mathematician Nicole Oresme (ca. 1323-1382)]

The harmonic series is the sum of reciprocals of numbers

The above series can be grouped as

which is greater than

which is

The last expression 1 + 1/2 + 1/2 + 1/2 + ... diverges (grows towards infinity). So does
the harmonic series.

6. Comparing Perimeters and Areas: Isoparametric Figures

We said in the beginning of this essay, comparing areas and perimeters is like comparing
apples and oranges. However we can compare square of the perimeter and area – they at
least have the same units. We have already noted the relationship between the perimeter p
and area s of simple closed curve on a plane can be represented by the famous
isoperimetric inequality:

p2/4A ≥ π or p2/4π ≥ A

with the equality holding only for the circle.

In school geometry we say two figures are congruent if they have the same shape and size
– if you place one figure on the other, they will totally match.

Congruent Triangles

Difference between Congruent and Similar

We introduce another category: isoparametric figures – figures with the same area and
perimeter but not necessarily congruent or similar.6

The discussion below is with grateful thanks to: Tom M. Apostol and Mamikon A. Mnatsakanian.
‘Isoperimetric and Isoparametric Problems.’ The Mathematical Association of America, Monthly 111,
February 2004.

Above figures have same perimeter and same area but they are different in looks –
that is not congruent – but they are isoparametric (Source: Apostol et al, op.cit.)

More Examples of Incongruent Isoparametric Regions (Source: Apostol et al, op. cit.)

1) We define the contour ratio for a closed figure as k = p2/4A where p is the perimeter
and A is the area. The above pairs of figures all have the same contour ratio k because
they have the same perimeter and area. That is isoparametric contours have the same
contour ratio k. Obviously!

But not the other way around. Figures with same contour ratio need not have same
perimeter and area. But they can be scaled (that is their size increased/decreased) so that
their areas and perimeters match.

2) In principle therefore it is possible to have highly different looking (non-congruent)

figures but with the same area and perimeter. And also we can have figures with same
contour ratios but with different shapes (that is not congruent even after adjusting for
size) and different areas and perimeters.

3) But it is not possible to have a figure which does not have the same shape as the circle,
that is non-congruent to it, and yet have the same area and perimeter.

This is because of the isoperimetric inequality: for the circle, k = π, has the largest area
among all shapes in the plane with the same perimeter. (Or alternatively, among all
shapes in the plane with the same area the circle has the shortest perimeter.)

4) Similarly a regular n sided polygon can be shown to have a contour ratio k which has a
factor n [in fact, k = n tan (π/n)].Hence regular polygons with different number of sides
cannot be isoparametric, that is cannot have the same area and perimeter. (Please note a
regular and irregular polygon of different sides can be isoparametric – as in the figures
above. Therefore we see that totally different non-congruent contours can have the same
contour ratio.)

5) Similar contours - that is same shape but not same size - will have same contour ratio
as the scaling factor cancels out in k = p2/4A.

6) All circles will have the same k = π as k = p2/4A = (2πr) 2/4πr = π.

7) All squares of side s have k = 4 as k = p2/4A = (4s)2/4s2 = 4. All other quadrilaterals

have a higher contour ratio. Can you say why?

8) All equilateral triangles have the same contour ratio: 3√3 = 5.1961.

9) Of all triangles, the equilateral triangle has the lowest contour ratio – can you say

10) All isosceles right angle triangles have k = 3+2√2 = 5.2824. But all Pythagorean right
triangles (of say sides 3, 4, 5) have larger k. Can you think why?

11) Can contour ratios be high, say in double digits? Yes, an obvious candidate is a star
polygon like the one here below. The Koch snowflakes and Sierpinski gaskets have
infinite contour ratios ultimately.

There are several other questions we can ask of contour ratios. But we will rest here for
the time being.

In this essay, we have asked the question whether perimeters and areas can be compared
and seen how we can do it meaningfully, how we can have maximum areas possible
given fixed perimeters and how we can have zero or finite areas and infinite perimeters;
and finite volumes and infinite surface areas.