Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Window Patterns

Start with a square piece of paper (like a Post it note), fold and unfold it in half along a mid-line or along a diagonal. Take another identical square, and fold and unfold it the same way. Decide on some way to place the second square on the first, so that the second is somewhat rotated. Use only the edges of the square and the creases that you made to determine the placement. Make your placement precise so that your "rule" can be described exactly in terms of the edges and creases. Repeat this process, placing a third square on top of your second square using exactly the same rule. Repeat until your placing of papers leads you back to the first piece.

The resulting construction might look something like the one shown on the left below. If you take your papers, set them in place with some careful light gluing, and place them on a window, the sunlight passing through the overlapping papers creates a stained-glass effect that shows a variety of shapes.

This sort of construction is a simplified version of what William Gibbs describes in his book "Window Patterns." In Gibbs' treatment, the pattern is partially planned in advance, and then the dimensions of the rectangular pieces of paper that make up the pattern are determined using a little trigonometry. This process can be simplified by starting with a more limited range of options for paper dimension and placement. It turns out that a surprising number of window patterns can be created by only using squares, their mid-lines, and their diagonals, and that these patterns invariably have "special triangles" and related regular polygons and star-polygons embedded within them.

Here are a two more "placement rules" and the patterns that they give rise to.

The diagrams were created using Geometer's Sketchpad - if you construct the rule using translations applied to a constructed square, you can use the iteration feature to create the final pattern. GSP provides a good environment for planning out the patterns prior to constructing them with paper, and building the plans in GSP is enjoyable and instructive as well.