Transforming Math Equations into 3D Figures

Source: Quanta magazine, Jan 2017

Mathematicians are not so different from naturalists. Rather than studying organisms, they study equations and shapes using their own techniques. They twist and stretch mathematical objects, translate them into new mathematical languages, and apply them to new problems. As they find new ways to look at familiar things, the possibilities for insight multiply.

a new idea from two mathematicians: Laura DeMarco, a professor at Northwestern University, and Kathryn Lindsey, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago. They begin with a plain old polynomial equation, the kind grudgingly familiar to any high school math student: f(x) = x2 – 1. Instead of graphing it or finding its roots, they take the unprecedented step of transforming it into a 3-D object.

With polynomials, “everything is defined in the two-dimensional plane,” Lindsey said. “There isn’t a natural place a third dimension would come into it until you start thinking about these shapes Laura and I are building.”

a promising new method of inquiry: Using the shapes built from polynomial equations, they hope to come to understand more about the underlying equations — which is what mathematicians really care about.

“These are fascinating and beautiful things that arise very naturally in our subject and should be understood!” DeMarco said by email, referring to the shapes.

in 2010 William Thurston, the late Cornell University mathematician and Fields Medal winner, heard about the shapes from McMullen. Thurston suspected that it might be possible to take flat shapes computed from polynomials and bend them to create 3-D objects. To explore this idea, he and Lindsey, who was then a graduate student at Cornell, constructed the 3-D objects from construction paper, tape and a precision cutting device that Thurston had on hand from an earlier project. The result wouldn’t have been out of place at an elementary school arts and crafts fair, and Lindsey admits she was kind of mystified by the whole thing.

“I never understood why we were doing this, what the point was and what was going on in his mind that made him think this was really important,” said Lindsey. “Then unfortunately when he died, I couldn’t ask him anymore. There was this brilliant guy who suggested something and said he thought it was an important, neat thing, so it’s natural to wonder ‘What is it? What’s going on here?’”

DeMarco and Lindsey’s work is heavily influenced by the mid 20th-century mathematician Aleksandr Aleksandrov. Aleksandrov established that there is only one unique way of folding a given polygon to get a 3-D object. He lamented that it seemed impossible to mathematically calculate the correct folding lines. Today, the best strategy is often to make a best guess about where to fold the polygon — and then to get out scissors and tape to see if the estimate is right.

“I would even characterize it as being sort of playful at this stage,” McMullen said, adding, “In a way that’s how some of the best mathematical research proceeds — you don’t know what something is going to be good for, but it seems to be a feature of the mathematical landscape.”