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New twist on ancient math problem could improve medicine, microelectronics
Date:5/11/2012

ANN ARBOR, Mich.A hidden facet of a math problem that goes back to Sanskrit scrolls has just been exposed by nanotechnology researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Connecticut.

It turns out we've been missing a version of the famous "packing problem," and its new guise could have implications for cancer treatment, secure wireless networks, microelectronics and demolitions, the researchers say.

Called the "filling problem," it seeks the best way to cover the inside of an object with a particular shape, such as filling a triangle with discs of varying sizes. Unlike the traditional packing problem, the discs can overlap. It also differs from the "covering problem" because the discs can't extend beyond the triangle's boundaries.

"Besides introducing the problem, we also provided a solution in two dimensions," said Sharon Glotzer, U-M professor of chemical engineering.

That solution makes it immediately applicable to treating tumors using fewer shots with radiation beams or speeding up the manufacturing of silicon chips for microprocessors.

The key to solutions in any dimension is to find a shape's "skeleton," said Carolyn Phillips, a postdoctoral fellow at Argonne National Laboratory who recently completed her Ph.D. in Glotzer's group and solved the problem as part of her dissertation.

"Every shape you want to fill has a backbone that goes through the center of the shape, like a spine," she said.

For a pentagon, the skeleton looks like a stick-drawing of a starfish. The discs that fill the pentagon best will always have their centers on one of those lines.

Junctions between lines in the skeleton are special points that Glotzer's team refers to as "traps." The pentagon only has one trap, right at its center, but more complicated shapes can contain multiple traps. In most optimal solutions, each trap has a disc centered over it, Phillips said.

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Contact: Katherine McAlpine
kmca@umich.edu
734-763-4386

Source:Eurekalert

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