Sonobe and “underlying geometry”

At one of my origami events I made a new friend, an art teacher at a Boston public school who’s interested in math and origami.  She invited me to visit her school and teach some origami to her students.  (I was also offered free Jamaican food for lunch, so turning the offer down wasn’t really an option.)  In the month since my talk, she’s become quite a talented and prolific constructor of Sonobe art, and one of the things she’s figured out was completely new to me.  In my first origami gallery I described the figures I made by referring to what I call their “underlying geometry”.  In this post, I’m going to try to explain what that means (and so maybe make the descriptions in the gallery more decipherable), show how she broke it, and mention a couple of consequences.

Each Sonobe unit has a rib running down its back.   When three Sonobe units fit together to form one of the triangular pyramids that are so prominent in most Sonobe constructions (the “cube” excepted), these ribs line up so as to form the equilateral triangular base of the pyramid. (Though I don’t use this much in practice, it’s also possible to have four units fit together to form a flat square face; in this case, the ribs line up to form the four edges of the face.)  When we use the Sonobe unit to build some elaborate polyhedron, the ribs get trapped inside where we can’t see them.  However, with a little care we can check that they form the skeleton (that is, the collection of edges) of a polyhedron.  This polyhedron is what I call the “underlying polyhedron” associated to the origami polyhedron, and I use the name of the underlying figure to refer to the origami construction.  So, for example, what I call an octahedron really is an “octahedron augmented with triangular pyramids”, or just “augmented octahedron” for short.    (I often use the adjective “stellated” in place of “augmented” because it’s clearer and sounds better, but sadly it’s technically incorrect.)

This identification of the complicated origami with the less-complicated underlying polyhedron is very appealing.  For example,

  • it tells us immediately that the number of edges of the polyhedron is the number of units we need;
  • it lets us think about what constructions we want to make by thinking instead about the simpler question of which polyhedra have only equilateral triangles as faces;
  • it lets us prove theorems about Sonobe polyhedra (notably, that the number of units we need is always a multiple of three, and that every Sonobe construction can be made in three colors with no same-colored units interlocking); and
  • it lets us plan out in advance how to color a construction by drawing the skeleton abstractly as a graph, which for all reasonably-sized models will always be planar.

I find this last feature to be particularly nice, since you can also read off the graph which units will interlock, which allows maximal symmetry in the coloring.

Now let’s get back to where this post started: my friend (perhaps pursuing an artist’s approach rather than a mathematician’s, or having the luck of not having been told very much about the “rules” I’ve mentioned above, or just being cleverer than I, or for some other reason) took the idea of smushing cubes and did something a little different:Some of the orange units in the middle have been folded perpendicular to their ribs (instead of being folded along their ribs, like a traditional Sonobe).  This means that some of the “edges” of the “underlying polyhedron” have sharp bends at their midpoints, so they are no longer line segments.  What’s a mathematician to do?  Well, one possibility is to declare this illegal and live a life filled with fewer beautiful things but this seems like a suboptimal choice.  Instead, I’ve decided to make my peace with this construction.  In the two examples above (both straightforward variations on the theme of smushed cubes), one can simply replace the bent edges in the underlying not-actually-a-polyhedron with straight lines; the result will be an honest polyhedron (specifically, a triangular prism).  Unfortunately, it’s not clear to me that this simple fix works in all cases; this construction is quite flexible, so it may not be possible to characterize everything we can do with it.  However, I have other reasons for liking this trick:This is a torus constructed from 45 Sonobe units, a much more reasonable number than the 96 I calculated I would need to do it without this technique.  It’s also considerably more stable than the 96-unit torus would be because most vertices are incident to relatively few units.

One thing I should mention is that the torus above has pentagonal symmetry.  This suggests that the angle between the faces of two adjacent triangular prisms in the underlying polyhedron should be 108^\circ.  However, since smushing cubes is equivalent to gluing tetrahedra together by faces (forming what I called in the gallery a “complex” of tetrahedra), this angle really should be the angle formed by the normal lines to two faces of a regular tetrahedron.  A careful geometric argument (drop altitudes from two vertices to the opposite faces; argue that the foot of each is the centroid of the opposite face, that they intersect, and then that the point of intersection divides each into a 3:1 ratio) shows that this angle is \arccos \left(- \frac{1}{3}\right) \approx 109.5^\circ.  So, this isn’t on-the-nose from the point of view of the abstract underlying geometry, but it’s certainly close enough that we can make this out of paper without seeing any distortion.  (I suspect a similar sort of error afflicts my hypothetical 96-unit torus.)

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8 Responses to Sonobe and “underlying geometry”

  1. Eva Szillery says:

    This is a question, not a comment. I assume, that the torus shown here (built from 45 Sonobe units) has 45 vertices.
    Is this correct? Please confirm.

  2. JBL says:

    Yes, that’s right.

  3. Eva Szillery says:

    I’d like to know why is “stellated technically incorrect”. Robert Lang refers to “stellated”, Tom Hull and the Geometry Code uses it likewise and last but not least this is how I was taught in graduate school.
    I’d be open to change to “augmented” if you give good reasons and open the discussion to others on the field of modular origami.

  4. Eva Szillery says:

    In the past I have built several tori from PHIZZ units. Most of those were designed by Tom Hull and/or his students. The largest I built (made if 555 PHIZZ units was designed by Roberto Gretter – I personally built it from seven shades of yellow).
    The building of those models uniformly start by the assembly of the “inside saddle surface” (octagon or heptagon units) and the builder proceeds outward.
    I wonder if there is any similar strategy with your 45-unit torus made of basic sonobe units? In the case of your torus there is no saddle surface inside, rather a pentagon star formation.
    In any case do you start the assembly of your torus by building the “pentagon star” as I described?

  5. JBL says:

    Hi Eva,
    Thanks for the comments! It looks like you and your students have done some very nice work; in all likelyhood you know far more about these topics than I do :-). The comment about “technically incorrect” is a reference to the definition in the linked Wikipedia article, which requires that the faces of the stellated polyhedron belong to the same planes as the faces of the original polyhedron. This is obviously not the case for most Sonobe constructions. I don’t know whether (e.g.) Tom Hull has an alternate precise definition of the word “stellated” — if so, probably Wikipedia should be updated to reflect this. My assumption has always been that the word is used in the math origami community in a colloquial way. It’s certainly more evocative and pleasant-sounding than the boring term “augmented”, and if I wouldn’t suggest changing your terminology just because of my comment.

    Your PHIZZ construction sounds amazing! (While I know many people who learned the PHIZZ at the Hampshire College summer program, I never picked it up from them.) I did not build my torus in the order you suggest — instead, I started with a “cube” and added units to make it grow around in both directions, with the final connections coming together at another of the square faces. If it helps: there are six units in each of the colors that make up a square face (yellow, orange, white, dark green and purple), all of which are “conventional” units, and three units in each of the other colors, all of which are “broken”. Is the PHIZZ order you mention required for stability reasons?

  6. Eva Szillery says:

    The suggested “PHIZZ order” is for easy access for the “inside” saddle surface.

  7. JBL

    Did you know you can make a 75 piece ring shape which is an analogous shape to the 45 piece ring out of the 12 piece balls? Anywhere you can expand a 6 piece cube along the 4 vertices, you can do the same with a 12 piece ball. The 45 piece ring can be understood as divided into 5 cubes of 6 pieces each, with 5 connector sections of 3 pieces each. The 75 piece ring is 5 balls of 12 pieces each with 5 connector sections of 3 pieces each. I have one on my site with an additional 30 pieces added to make it more stable when sitting on a flat surface:

    I also was wondering if you got your 45 piece ring out of a book somewhere; I have been making these and more for a while, but I haven’t gotten around to publishing my instructions and methods for making these. I am pretty sure several people have independently invented this shape by now, but I don’t want to ruffle anyone’s feathers or get into legal mishaps if I try and publish my instructions for the 45 ring shape.

    I also have many more advanced sonobe shapes, if you care to check out my stuff:

    Drop me a line if you want help to try and make any of the shapes I have on my page or talk about sonobe stuff!

    Jason Kemppainen

  8. JBL says:

    Hi Jason,

    Thanks for the comment, and sorry for the delayed response. I’m not entirely sure that I understand what your “12-piece balls” are; are they related to these? So I guess that means that my answer to your first question is “no, I didn’t know this” :)

    Your stuff is quite gorgeous! It will take me a while to wrap my head around it.

    As for the 45-unit ring, it is self-taught, but of course this doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t put it in a book somewhere.

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