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Math Trek

Bubbles and Math Olympiads

3:58pm, June 8, 2001

Predicting the geometric shapes of soap bubble clusters can lead to surprisingly difficult mathematical problems.

Frank Morgan of Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., recently illustrated such difficulties when he invited an audience of mathematicians, students, and others to vote on which one of a given pair of different representations of the same number of clustered planar bubbles would have a smaller total perimeter. Assembled for a ceremony at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., to honor the 12 winners of the 2001 U.S.A. Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO), audience members were wrong as often as they were right.

"These are very tricky questions," Morgan says. "You often ca

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