“Once, in a contest with a rival, he painted a blue curve on a huge sheet of paper. Then he dipped the feet of a chicken in red paint and persuaded the bird to walk all over the paper. The resulting image, he said, represented the Tatsuta river with red maple leaves floating in it. The judge gave him the prize.” — The Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (c. 1760-1849) described in Thomas W. Hodgkinson’s and Hubert van den Bergh’s How to Sound Cultured (2015).
Anyone interested in recreational mathematics should seek out three compendiums by Ian Stewart: Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities (2008), Professor Stewart’s Hoard of Mathematical Treasures (2009) and Professor Stewart’s Casebook of Mathematical Mysteries (2014). They’re full of ideas and puzzles and are excellent introductions to the scope and subtlety of maths. I first came across Alexander’s Horned Sphere in one of them. I also came across this simpler shape that packs infinity into a finite area:
I call it a horned triangle or unicorn triangle and it reminds me of a wave curling over, like Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa (c. 1830) (“wave” is unda in Latin and onda in Spanish).
To construct the unicorn triangle, you take an equilateral triangle with sides of length 1 and erect a triangle with sides of length 0.5 on one of its corners. Then on the corresponding corner of the new triangle you erect a triangle with sides of length 0.25. And so on, for ever.
When you double the sides of a polygon, you quadruple the area: a 1×1 square has an area of 1, a 2×2 square has an area of 4. Accordingly, when you halve the sides of a polygon, you quarter the area: a 1×1 square has an area of 1, a 0.5 x 0.5 square has an area of 0.25 or 1/4. So if the original triangle of the unicorn triangle above has an area of 1 rather than sides of 1, the first triangle added has an area of 0.25 = 1/4, the next an area of 0.0625 = 1/16, and so on. The infinite sum is this:
1/4 + 1/16 + 1/256 + 1/1024 + 1/4096 + 1/16384…
Which equals 1/3. This becomes important when you see the use made of the shape in Stewart’s book. The unicorn triangle is a rep-tile, or a shape that can be divided into smaller copies of the same shape:
An equilateral triangle can be divided into four copies of itself, each 1/4 of the original area. If an equilateral triangle with an area of 4 is divided into three unicorn triangles, each unicorn has an area of 1 + 1/3 and 3 * (1 + 1/3) = 4.
Because it’s a rep-tile, a unicorn triangle is also a fractal, a shape that is self-similar at smaller and smaller scales. When one of the sub-unicorns is dropped, the fractals become more obvious: