I’m not a mathematician. Haven’t been since about 2009. So I’ll admit the main draw of this event, for me, was not the maths. Rather it was the building of a whacking great 3D model out of a kind of specialized KNEX kit.
To me, the shapes and colours, the symmetry, the little tunnels of light which let you see straight through to the other side of Summerhall, were just plain pretty. But it turns out what was coming into shape in front of me was not anything to do with fortified Devonshire wine (as the term ‘bucky’ may suggest to some casual readers) or time-travel (the fourth dimension stuff). The enormous ball – the first of its kind in the UK – is rather a representation of an abstract mathematical shape- a three-dimensional shadow of a four-dimensional object. And it was beautiful.
To start us off, a patient and wonderfully well-versed team, gave us an explanation of our task – how the ten-thousand-piece puzzle was to be put together, buckyball by buckyball, and of course what a buckyball actually is. The buckyball shape looks a lot like your common garden football, and in nature carbon atoms can often be found arranged into molecules in this same shape.
Here, our enormous task was to build a sphere made of these smaller shapes. Following a hearty pizza lunch and egged on with the occasional jaffa cake, construction took nearly five hours, and provided a welcome break from any innovative essay writing also going on this week. It’s hard to see how concepts like four-dimensional space and the structural integrity of a massive ball of plastic can really be understood without banding together to construct a model of the thing- and nothing else can teach you the true horror of the sound of cracking plastic, either.
Final product. Buckyball team at Summerhall.