The strength of triangles - Bloomsbury tour
The strength of triangles
Look around you. What shapes do you see? Hidden amoungst the squares, rectangles, arches and circles are the unsung heroes of construction – the humble triangle. And triangles are so ubiquitous because of their strength.
[Why are triangles so strong?] Triangles are inherently strong because they form a fixed rigid shape. This can be demonstrated by building a triangle out of garden canes, securing the corners with rubber bands. The shape is fixed by the length of the sides and the triangle withstands quite substantial forces applied to it.
[Why is a square unstable?] However if you built a square in the same way, a gentle push at one corner could easily change the shape into a paralleogram. There are infinitely many four-sided shapes with equal sides, a square is just one of them, and so the shape is easily transformed from one to the other with minimal force.
A square lacks the rigid strength of a triangle. But by adding diagonal bracing, a technique most clearly seen in bracing cranes or scaffolding, the structure can again rely on the strength of a triangle to hold its shape.
And the strength of triangles isn't just practical, it's beautiful too. You can't visit London without noticing one of the most iconic elements of its skyline – 30 St Mary's Axe, otherwise known as the Gherkin. The design and construction of this striking building would not have been possible without mathematics. And its tapered curved shape relies on the strength of triangles.
[How many pieces of curved glass are used in the Gherkin?] Although the Gherkin appears to have a sleek curved form it is actually made up of hundreds of flat panels, with just a single curved piece of glass right at the very top of the building. Not only do these panels give the iconic building its curved appearance, the strength of their triangular shape also allows the building to have such a light and airy structure.
Creating the new world
Triangles have always been a fundamental tool in architecture and construction, but mathematics has allowed them to be used to construct some of the complex and daring shapes we see in architecture today. [Can you spot any other triangles along the river or in the city?] Triangulation of surfaces, such as the Gherkin or the roofs of the British Museum courtyard and the new concourse at Kings Cross Station, has allowed spectacular curved shapes to be built with a minimal amount of material.
Triangulation of surfaces is also responsible for the virtual worlds many of us enjoy. Digital images and computer generated animation all rely on clever mathematics to construct and manipulate triangulated models of our favourite characters and their environments, and then to mathematically paint them to bring them to life.
Props: 20 garden canes and lots of rubber bands.
We've included questions (in italics in the description above) that you can ask the group to get them involved.
Divide the group into two groups and ask one to construct a tetrahedron (a pyramid made out of four equilateral triangles) and the other a cube.
When finished, ask the the first group to let go of their tetrahedron. The structure will stand unsupported due to its rigid shape and will even bear a substantial amount of force. This is because there is only one possible shape that can be constructed with four triangular faces with equal length sides.
The carbon atoms in diamond are arranged in a continuous lattice of tetrahedra. This is why diamonds are so hard.
When the second group let go of their cube, the structure will collapse. The shape isn't rigid as the corners are flexible. The shape can easily be skewed into any one of the infinitely many shapes that can be built with six quadrilateral faces with equal length sides. (These squashed cubes are called parallelepipeds.)