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McDuff and Schlenk had been attempting to determine once they may match a symplectic ellipsoid (an elongated blob) right into a ball. This kind of downside, often called the embedding downside, is kind of simple in Euclidean geometry, the place shapes do not bend in any respect. It is also simple in different subfields of geometry, the place shapes will be bent as a lot as you want so long as their quantity would not change.

Symplectic geometry is extra sophisticated. Right here, the reply relies on the “eccentricity” of the ellipsoid, a quantity that represents how elongated it’s. An extended, skinny form with a big eccentricity will be simply folded right into a extra compact form, like a coiled snake. When the eccentricity is low, issues are much less easy.

McDuff and Schlenk’s 2012 paper calculated the radius of the smallest ball that would match into a number of ellipsoids. His resolution resembled an infinite ladder based mostly on Fibonacci numbers, a sequence of numbers the place the following quantity is all the time the sum of the earlier two.

After McDuff and Schlenk revealed their outcomes, mathematicians questioned: What occurs when you attempt to embed your ellipsoid in one thing aside from a ball, like a four-dimensional dice? Would extra infinite stairs seem?

A Fractal Shock

The outcomes filtered down because the researchers found some infinite stairs right here, some past. Then, in 2019, the Affiliation for Girls in Arithmetic organized a week-long symplectic geometry workshop. On the occasion, Holm and her collaborator Ana Rita Pires shaped a working group that included McDuff and Morgan Weiler, a latest Ph.D. graduate from the College of California, Berkeley. They got down to embed ellipsoids in a kind of form that has infinite incarnations, which in the end allowed them to supply infinite stairs.

Dusa McDuff and her colleagues have been laying out an ever-expanding zoo of countless stairs.Courtesy of Barnard Faculty

To visualise the shapes the group studied, do not forget that symplectic shapes characterize a system of transferring objects. As a result of the bodily state of an object makes use of two portions, place and velocity, symplectic shapes are all the time described by a fair variety of variables. In different phrases, they’re of uniform dimension. Since a two-dimensional form represents solely an object transferring alongside a hard and fast path, shapes with 4 dimensions or extra are probably the most intriguing to mathematicians.

However four-dimensional shapes are unattainable to visualise, severely limiting the mathematicians’ toolkit. As a partial treatment, researchers can typically draw two-dimensional photos that seize a minimum of some details about form. In accordance with the principles for creating these 2D photos, a four-dimensional ball turns into a proper triangle.

The shapes that Holm and Pires’ group analyzed are known as Hirzebruch surfaces. Every Hirzebruch floor is obtained by reducing off the higher nook of this proper triangle. A quantity, b, measure how a lot you may have reduce. When b is 0, you have not reduce something; when it is 1, you have erased nearly your entire triangle.

Initially, it appeared unlikely that the group’s efforts would bear fruit. “We spent every week engaged on it and located nothing,” mentioned Weiler, who’s now a postdoc at Cornell. In the beginning of 2020, they nonetheless hadn’t made a lot headway. McDuff recalled certainly one of Holm’s recommendations for the title of the article they might write: “No luck discovering stairs.”

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The Fibonacci Numbers Hiding in Strange Spaces