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O’Beirne’s Cube

Much of what we make is two-dimensional. Hugh Montgomery, a mathematician at the University of Michigan, told us about an intriguing 3D dissection puzzle by Tom O’Beirne, a Scottish author and inventor of puzzles. O’Beirne’s cube consists of six pieces that can be packed into a box. The blocks seem irregular at first glance.


However, the pieces are built from four copies of the base component: a 3x4x6 rectangular prism, or cuboid. In our version, each unit in the base cuboid is 0.25 inches, or a bit over 6 mm wide.

O’Beirne combined two of these 3x4x6 cuboids on a matching face, to produce these doubled cuboids:

He then created every possible pair of the doubled cuboids, matching half of a face on each. Below, you can see how a 3x4x12 is paired with a 4x6x6. There are two ways to do this. They are mirror images of each other.

There are three possible pairings of the doubled cuboids. Each pairing produces two mirrored pieces. This generates the six blocks of O’Beirne’s puzzle.

You can combine these six to make a cube.

You can rearrange the six pieces into five other cuboids:

In fact, with any one of the these six cuboids, you can split it into two parts, and recombine to create another cuboid. You can quickly cycle thorugh all six! The original version of the diagram below is described in more detail in Brian Butler’s excellent article on John Rausch’s puzzle site.

You don’t have to limit yourself to cuboids. Here are some other puzzling shapes.

We sell the O’Beirne’s Cube here. But if you have the tools and are up for it, you can make your own. At the San Francisco American Craft Council show, we met Ron Choy, who was captivated by the O’Beirne’s cube. I sent him the link to John Rausch’s site. We were delighted to hear from Ron later, with a picture of the cube he made along with his notes on the process. Now that’s some hands on learning!

Ron Choy's OBeirne's cube
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Design note #5: Tiling with regular polygons

The Koch snowflake got me thinking about producing other sets of tiles that can be used to tesselate the plane. For the classroom, I created a prototype set of regular polygon tiles, which I used in conjunction with Jacobs’ Mathematics: A Human Endeavor. These happened to be created on a laser with lower power and airflow than mine, so some of the tiles have caramel-colored edges, which I clean up in production. But I kind of like the way it highlights the edges.

Regular tilings of the plane used only regular polygons to completely fill the plane, and this can only be done with triangles, squares, and hexagons.

However, there are many more semi-regular tilings, which allow 2 or more polygon types, always meeting in the same way at the corners. Below are the 3.6.3.6 and 3.4.6.4 tilings, named for the number of sides of the polygons that meet at each vertex in the tiling.



And note that octagons and 12-sided dodecagons can get in on the action:



These are the only regular polygons that can be used to completely tile the plane. However, as noted by Albrecht Dürer and Johannes Kepler, there are some interesting tilings you can create with pentagons. So I created a set of regular pentagons:

As we played with them, we found it a little frustrating that a slight bump tends to move everything out of alignment. So I added tabs. The construction below comes up often in graphics of Kepler’s work.

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Design note #4: Koch snowflakes

The Koch snowflake is one of the first fractal curves to be described.

Like other fractal curves, it has an infinitely long boundary, and the self-similarity is obvious as you zoom in. One of the cool things about the Koch snowflake is that it can be built from six smaller snowflakes, leaving another snowflake in the middle. That of course can also be decomposed, recursively, giving you this:

So that led to one of our first puzzles, which uses two sizes of snowflakes. I put the box of pieces in the Mathematics Commons at the University of Michigan. Both of the patterns below were created there.

Putting it together, in holiday colors…

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Design Note #2: Oriented Triangles

This is inspired by the Izzi puzzle, which is composed of squares. I learned about it from Professor Mark Saul of the The Center for Mathematical Talent at NYU, who developed beautiful mathematical content for i2camp.org. The Izzi puzzle consists of squares that have bisected edges that are combinations of black and white.

On my teaching blog, I explored the idea of using equilateral triangles. You need only 24 pieces to have one of each possible triangle, and they can be assembled into a hexagon. The challenge is to match all edges.

Below is the one I created in acrylic. The picture is a hexagon, but not a solution.

I created them initially using etching to create a lighter color. But I’m not a fan of etching unless it is really necessary. For one thing, it is slow. But I’ve also found that there is usually a more aesthetically pleasing alternative using low power cut lines. The new version will be available soon in our store.