Topological Tomfoolery in R: Plotting a Möbius Strip

Topology is, according to Clifford Pickover, the “silly putty of mathematics”. This branch of maths studies the transformation of shapes, knots and other complex geometry problems.  One of the most famous topics in topology is the Möbius strip. This shape has some unusual properties which have inspired many artists, inventors, mathematicians and magicians.

You can make a Möbius strip by taking a strip of paper, giving it one twist and glue the ends together to form a loop. If you now cut this strip lengthwise in half, you don’t end-up with two separate strips, but with one long one.

The Möbius strip can also be described with the following parametric equations (where 0 \leq u \leq 2\pi, -1 \leq v \leq 1 and R is the radius of the loop):

x(u,v)= \left(R+\frac{v}{2} \cos \frac{u}{2}\right)\cos u
y(u,v)= \left(R+\frac{v}{2} \cos\frac{u}{2}\right)\sin u
z(u,v)= \frac{v}{2}\sin \frac{u}{2}

The mathematics of this set of parametric equations is not as compex as it looks. R is the radius of the ring, u is the polar angle of each point and v indicates the width of the strip. The polar angle u/2 indicates the number of half twists. To make the ring twist twice, change the anlge to u.

For my data science day job, I have to visualise some three-dimensional spaces so I thought I best learn how to do this by visualising a Möbis strip, using these three equations.

Plotting a Möbius Strip

The RGL package provides the perfect functionality to play with virtual Möbius strips. This package produces interactive three-dimensional plots that you can zoom and rotate. This package has many options to change lighting, colours, shininess and so on. The code to create for plotting a Möbius strip is straightforward.

The first section defines the parameters and converts the u and v sequences to a mesh (from the plot3D package). This function creates two matrices with every possible combination of u and v which are used to calculate the x, y, z points.

The last three lines define a 3D window with a white background and plot the 3D surface in blue. You can explore the figure with your mouse by zooming and rotating it. Parametric equations can be a bit of fun, play with the formula to change the shape and see what happens.

# Moebius strip

# Define Parameters
R <- 5
u <- seq(0, 2 * pi, length.out = 100)
v <- seq(-1, 1, length.out = 100)
m <- mesh(u, v)
u <- m$x
v <- m$y

# Móbius strip parametric equations
x <- (R + v/2 * cos(u /2)) * cos(u)
y <- (R + v/2 * cos(u /2)) * sin(u)
z <- v/2 * sin(u / 2)  

# Visualise
bg3d(color = "white")
surface3d(x, y, z, color= "blue")

You can find the latest version of this code on GitHub.

Plotting a Möbius Strip

Plotting a Möbius Strip: RGL output.

We can take it to the next level by plotting a three-dimensional Möbius strip, or a Klein Bottle. The parametric equations for the bottle are mind boggling:

x(u,v) = -\frac{2}{15} \cos u (3 \cos{v}-30 \sin{u}+90 \cos^4{u} \sin{u} -60 \cos^6{u} \sin{u} +5 \cos{u} \cos{v} \sin{u})

y(u,v) = -\frac{1}{15} \sin u (3 \cos{v}-3 \cos^2{u} \cos{v}-48 \cos^4{u} \cos{v} + 48 \cos^6{u} \cos{v} - 60 \sin{u}+5 \cos{u} \cos{v} \sin{u}-5 \cos^3{u} \cos{v} \sin{u}-80 \cos^5{u} \cos{v} \sin{u}+80 \cos^7{u} \cos{v} \sin{u})

z(u,v) = \frac{2}{15} (3+5 \cos{u} \sin{u}) \sin{v}

Where: 0 \leq u \leq \pi and 0 \leq v \leq 2\leq.

The code to visualise this bottle is essentially the same, just more complex equations.

u <- seq(0, pi, length.out = 100)
v <- seq(0, 2 * pi, length.out = 100)
m <- mesh(u, v)
u <- m$x
v <- m$y
x <- (-2 / 15) * cos(u) * (3 * cos(v) - 30 * sin(u) + 90 * cos(u)^4 * sin(u) - 60 * cos(u)^6 * sin(u) + 5 * cos(u) * cos(v) * sin(u))
y <- (-1 / 15) * sin(u) * (3 * cos(v) - 3 * cos(u)^2 * cos(v) - 48 * cos(u)^4 * cos(v) + 48 * cos(u)^6 * cos(v) - 60 * sin(u) + 5 * cos(u) * cos(v) * sin(u) - 5 * cos(u)^3 * cos(v) * sin(u) - 80 * cos(u)^5 * cos(v) * sin(u) + 80 * cos(u)^7 * cos(v) * sin(u))
z <- (+2 / 15) * (3 + 5 * cos(u) * sin(u)) * sin(v)

bg3d(color = "white")
surface3d(x, y, z, color= "blue", alpha = 0.5)
Plotting a Klein Bottle in RGL

Plotting a Klein Bottle in RGL. Click to view RGL widget.

The RGL package has some excellent facilities to visualise three-dimensional objects, far beyond simple strips. I am still learning and am working toward using it to visualise bathymetric surveys of water reservoirs. Möbius strips are, however, a lot more fun.

Creating Real Möbius Strips

Even more fun than playing with virtual Möbius strips is to make some paper versions and start cutting, just like August Möbius did when he did his research. If you like to create a Möbius strip, you can recycle then purchase a large zipper from your local haberdashery shop, add some hook-and-loop fasteners to the ends and start playing. If you like to know more about the mathematics of the topological curiosity, then I can highly recommend Clifford Pickover’s book on the topic.

Möbius strip zipper

Möbius strip zipper.

The Möbius Strip in Magic

In the first half of the twentieth century, many magicians used the Möbius strip as a magic trick. The great Harry Blackstone performed it regularly in his show.

If you are interested in magic tricks and Möbius strips, then you can read my ebook on the Afghan bands.

The Möbius Strip in Magic. A Treatise on the Afghan Bands

The Sierpinski Triangle: Visualising infinity in R

Sierpinski triangleWacław Sierpiński was a mathematical genius who developed several of the earliest fractals. The Sierpiński triangle is an easy to conceptualise geometrical figure but it hides a fascinating mathematical complexity. Start by drawing an equilateral triangle and draw another one in its centre. Then draw equilateral triangles in the four resulting triangles, and so on, ad infinitum.

The original Sierpinski triangle will eventually disappear into Cantor dust, a cloud of ever-shrinking triangles of infinitesimal size. The triangle is self-similar, no matter how far you zoom in, the basic geometry remains the same.

The Chaos Game

A fascinating method to create a Sierpinski Triangle is a chaos game. This method uses random numbers and some simple arithmetic rules. Sierpinski Triangles can be created using the following six steps:

  1. Define three points in a plane to form a triangle.
  2. Randomly select any point on the plane.
  3. Randomly select any one of the three triangle points.
  4. Move half the distance from your current position to the selected vertex.
  5. Plot the current position.
  6. Repeat from step 3.

This fractal is an implementation of chaos theory as this random process attracts to a complex ordered geometry. The game only works with random numbers and when selecting random vertices of the triangle.

Sierpinski Triangle Code

This code implements the six rules in R. The code first initialises the triangle, defines a random starting point and then runs a loop to place random dots. The R plot engine does not draw pixels but uses characters, which implies that the diagram is not as accurate as it could be but the general principle is clear. The x11() and Sys.sleep() commands are used to plot during the for-loop.

# Sierpinsky Triangle

# Initialise triangle
p <- c(0, 500, 1000)
q <- c(0, 1000, 0)
par(mar = rep(0, 4))
plot(p, q, col= "red", pch = 15, cex = 1, axes = FALSE)

# Random starting point
x <- sample(0:1000, 1)
y <- sample(0:1000, 1)

# Chaos game
for (i in 1:10000) {
    n <- sample(1:3, 1)
    x <- floor(x + (p[n] - x) / 2)
    y <- floor(y + (q[n] - y) / 2)
    points(x, y, pch = 15, cex = 0.5)

This algorithm demonstrates how a seemingly chaotic process can result in order. Many other versions of chaos games exist, which I leave to the reader to play with. If you create your own versions then please share the code in the comment box below.

View the latest version of this code on GitHub.