Using a Natalie Wolchover article to talk about hyperuniform distributions with kids

I’d somehow missed this article from Natalie Wolchover when it was published in July:

A Bird’s-Eye View of Nature’s Hidden Order

Luckily, though, it started playing on Quanta Magazine’s podcast while I was at the gym yesterday. It is such a great article! As soon as I got home I checked out the print version to see the pictures (which are pretty important for this article 🙂 ) and then started thinking about how to share this article with kids.

As an aside, Wolchover has won a ton of awards for science and math journalism:

Natalie Wolchover wins Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award

Check out her Quanta magazine articles – they are all incredible.

We started today’s project by looking at different ways to pack pennies. We’ve talked once or twice about sphere packing in the past, but it still felt like the best thing to do was start with the basic problem of packing circles. It was fun seeing the boys explore different ways to pack pennies on the board.

Also, sorry this video ends abruptly – the camera ran out of storage space. Oops!

While I was fixing the storage space problem (!) I had the boys skim through Wolchover’s article. We re-started with a quick review of the penny packing problem and then I also had the boys give a quick summary of what they saw in Wolchover’s article.

The fun thing in this part of the project was seeing the two different ways the boys found for packing the two coins.

Finally, with the camera off I had the boys try to create a hyperuniform distribution of pennies and nickels. I was pretty curious to see what they’d do and what the pattern would look like. We’d already discussed (off camera) the “Finding Hidden Order” graphic in Wolchover’s article, so they knew a tiny bit about what a truly random distribution would look like. What would they think a hyperuniform distribution of pennies and nickels would look like?

One of the great things about Wolchover’s article is that the high level ideas are something that kids can understand. The article is also a really neat way for kids to see how different fields – from biology to math – can work together. Oh how I wish I’d seen articles like this one when I was a kid!