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This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 225)

  1. Nov 4, 2006 #1
    [SOLVED] This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics (Week 225)

    Also available as http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/week225.html

    December 24, 2005
    This Week's Finds in Mathematical Physics - Week 225
    John Baez

    Happy holidays! I'll start with some gift suggestions for people
    who put off their Christmas shopping a bit too late, before moving
    on to this week's astronomy pictures and then some mathematical
    physics: minimal surfaces.

    Back in 2000 I listed some gift ideas in "week162". I decided to do
    it again this year. After all, where else can you read about quantum
    gravity, nonabelian cohomology, higher categories... and also get
    helpful shopping tips?

    I just saw this book in a local store, and it's GREAT:

    1) Robert Dinwiddie, Philip Eales, David Hughes, Ian Nicholson, Ian Ridpath,
    Giles Sparrow, Pam Spence, Carole Stott, Kevin Tildsley, and Martin Rees,
    Universe, DK PUblishing, New York, 2005.

    If you like the astronomy pictures you've seen here lately, you'll love
    this book, because it's *full* of them - all as part of a well-organized,
    clearly written, information-packed but nontechnical introduction to
    astronomy. It starts with the Solar System and sails out through the
    Oort Cloud to the Milky Way to the Local Group to the Virgo Supercluster
    ... and all the way out and back to the Big Bang!

    The only thing this book seems to lack - though I could have missed it -
    is a 3d map showing the relative scales of our Solar System, Galaxy, and
    so on. I recommended a wall chart like this back in "week162", and my
    friend Danny Stevenson just bought me one. I'll probably put it up
    near my office in the math department... gotta keep the kids thinking big!

    You don't really need to buy a chart like this. You can just look at
    this website:

    2) Richard Powell, An Atlas of the Universe,

    It has nine maps, starting with the stars within 12.5 light years and
    zooming out repeatedly by factors of 10 until it reaches the limits of
    the observable universe, roughly 14 billion light years away. Or more
    precisely, 14 billion years ago!

    (The farther we look, the older things we see, since light takes time to
    travel. The most distant thing we see is light released when hot gas
    from the Big Bang cooled down just enough to let light through! If we
    calculate how far this gas would be *now*, thanks to the expansion of the
    universe, we get a figure of roughly 78 billion light years. But of course
    we can't see what that gas looks like *now* unless we wait a lot longer.
    It's a bit confusing until you think about it for a while.)

    But, if someone you know wants to contemplate the universe in a more
    relaxing way, try getting them one of these:

    3) Bathsheba Grossman, Crystal model of a typical 100-megaparsec cube
    of the universe, http://www.bathsheba.com/crystal/largescale/ [Broken]

    Crystal model of the Milky Way, http://www.bathsheba.com/crystal/galaxy/

    My computer guru David Scharffenberg got me the 100-megaparsec cube,
    and it's great! It's lit up from below, and it shows the filaments,
    sheets and superclusters of galaxies that reign supreme at this distance

    David says the Milky Way is also nice: it takes into account the latest
    research, which shows our galaxy is a "barred" spiral! You can see the
    bar in the middle here:

    4) R. Hurt, NASA/JPL-Caltech, Milky Way Bar,
    http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu/Media/mediaimages/sig/sig05-010.shtml [Broken]

    If you really have money to burn, Grossman has also made nice sculptures
    of mathematical objects like the 24-cell, the 600-cell and Schoen's
    gyroid - a triply periodic minimal surface that chops 3-space into two parts:

    5) Bathsheba Grossman, Mathematical models, http://www.bathsheba.com/math/

    However, the great thing about the web is that lots of beautiful stuff
    is free - like these *pictures* of the gyroid.

    I explained the 24-cell and 600-cell in "week155". So, let me explain
    the gyroid - then I need to start cooking up a Christmas eve dinner!

    A "minimal surface" is a surface in ordinary 3d space that can't reduce
    its area by changing shape slightly. You can create a minimal surface
    by building a wire frame and then creating a soap film on it. As long
    as the soap film doesn't actually enclose any air, it will try to minimize
    its area - so it will end up being a minimal surface.

    If you make a minimal surface this way, it will have edges along the wire
    frame. A minimal surface without edges is called "complete". For about
    200 years, the only known complete minimal surfaces that didn't intersect
    themselves were the plane, the catenoid, and the helicoid. You get a
    "catenoid" by taking an infinitely long chain and let it hang to form a
    curve called a "catenary"; then you use this curve to form a surface of
    revolution, which is the catenoid:

    6) Eric Weisstein, Catenoid, from Mathworld - a Wolfram Web Resource,

    In cylindrical coordinates the catenoid is given by the

    r = c cosh(z/c)

    for your favorite constant c.

    A "helicoid" is like a spiral staircase; in cylindrical coordinates it's
    given by the equation

    z = c theta

    for some constant c. You can see a helicoid here - and see how it
    can continuously deform into a catenoid:

    7) Eric Weisstein, Helicoid, from Mathworld - a Wolfram Web Resource,

    In 1987 a fellow named Hoffman discovered a bunch more complete
    non-self-intersecting minimal surface with the help of a computer:

    8) D. Hoffman, The computer-aided discovery of new embedded minimal
    surfaces, Mathematical Intelligencer 9 (1987), 8-21.

    Since then people have gotten good at inventing minimal surfaces.
    You can see a bunch here:

    9) GRAPE (Graphics Programming Environment), Surface overview,
    http://www-sfb256.iam.uni-bonn.de/grape/EXAMPLES/AMANDUS/bmandus.html [Broken]

    10) GANG (Geometry Analysis Numerics Graphics), Gallery of minimal
    surfaces, http://www.gang.umass.edu/gallery/min/

    As you can see, people who work on mininal surfaces like goofy acronyms.
    If you look at the pictures, you can also see that a minimal surface
    needs to be locally saddle-shaped. More precisely, it has "zero mean
    curvature": at any point, if it curves one way along one principal
    axis of curvature, it has to curve an equal and opposite amount along
    the perpendicular axis. Supposedly this was proved by Euler.

    If we write this requirement as an equation, we get a second-order nonlinear
    differential equation called "Lagrange's equation" - a special case of
    the Euler-Lagrange equation we get from any problem in the variational
    calculation. So, finding new minimal surfaces amounts to finding new
    solutions of this equation. Soap films solve this equation automatically,
    but only with the help of a wire frame; it's a lot more work to find
    minimal surfaces that are complete.

    There are a lot of minimal surfaces that have periodic symmetry in
    3 directions, like a crystal lattice. You can learn about them here:

    11) Elke Koch, 3-periodic minimal surfaces,
    http://staff-www.uni-marburg.de/~kochelke/minsurfs.htm [Broken]

    In fact, they have interesting relations to crystallography:

    12) Elke Koch and Werner Fischer, Mathematical crystallography
    http://www.staff.uni-marburg.de/~kochelke/mathcryst.htm#minsurf [Broken]

    I guess you can figure out which of the 230 crystal symmetry groups
    (or "space groups") can arise as symmetries of triply periodic minimal
    surfaces, and use this to help classify these rascals. A cool mixture
    of group theory and differential geometry! I don't get the impression
    that people have completed the classification, though.

    Anyway, Schoen's "gyroid" is one of these triply periodic minimal
    surfaces - apparently discovered before the computer revolution kicked in:

    13) A. H. Schoen, Infinite periodic minimal surfaces without
    selfintersections, NASA Tech. Note No. D-5541, Washington, DC, 1970.

    You can learn more about the gyroid here:

    14) Eric Weisstein, Gyroid, From Mathworld - a Wolfram Web Resource,

    Apparently the gyroid is the only triply periodic non-self-intersecting
    minimal surface with "triple junctions". I'm not quite sure what that
    means mathematically, but I can see them in the picture!

    I said that soap films weren't good at creating *complete* minimal
    surfaces. But actually, people have seen at least approximate gyroids
    in nature, made from soap-like films:

    15) P. Garstecki and R. Holyst, Scattering patterns of self-assembled
    gyroid cubic phases in amphiphilic systems, J. Chem. Phys. 115 (2001),

    An "amphiphilic" molecule is one that's attracted by water at one end
    and repelled by water at the other. Mixed with water and oil, such
    molecules form membranes, and really complicated patterns can emerge,
    verging on the biological. Sometimes the membranes make a gyroid
    pattern, with oil on one side and water on other! It's a great example
    of how any sufficiently beautiful mathematical pattern tends to show up
    in nature somewhere... as Plato hinted in his theory of "forms".

    People have fun simulating these "ternary amphiphilic fluids" on computers:

    16) Nelido Gonzalez-Segredo and Peter V. Coveney, Coarsening dynamics of
    ternary amphiphilic fluids and the self-assembly of the gyroid and
    sponge mesophases: lattice-Boltzmann simulations, available as

    17) Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Ketchup on the grid with joysticks,

    The second site above describes the "TeraGyroid Project", in which
    people used 17 teraflops of computing power at 6 different facilities
    to simulate the gyroidal phase of oil/water/amphiphile mixtures and
    study how "defects" move around in what's otherwise a regular pattern.
    The reference to ketchup comes from some supposed relationship between
    these ternary amphiphilic fluids and how ketchup gets stuck in
    the bottle. I'm not sure ketchup actually *is* a ternary amphiphilic
    fluid, though!

    Hmm. I just noticed a pattern to the websites I've been referring
    to: first one about a "Milky Way bar", then one about a "GRAPE", and
    now one about ketchup! I think it's time to cook that dinner.

    Previous issues of "This Week's Finds" and other expository articles on
    mathematics and physics, as well as some of my research papers, can be
    obtained at


    For a table of contents of all the issues of This Week's Finds, try


    A simple jumping-off point to the old issues is available at


    If you just want the latest issue, go to

    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 4, 2006 #2
    If people want to look at some pictures of minimal surfaces including
    the gyroid that they can rotate and play with I recommend Dick Palais'
    3D-XplorMath http://vmm.math.uci.edu/3D-XplorMath/ [Broken]. It only runs on a
    mac. If you have used it in the past and not updated to the
    most recent copy do so as it is faster. If you own red-green glasses
    you can look at the surfaces in 3d (check if you or your kid's went to
    Spy-Kids 3d a few years back).

    Happy New Year,

    Regards - Michael

    PS: I hope the meal went well John.
    PPS: I am on the 3d-XplorMath consortium but as it is a free product I
    don't think that's a conflict of interest.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 2, 2017
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