The Math of Social Distancing Is a Lesson in Geometry

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Sphere packing might seem like a topic only a mathematician could love. Who else could get excited about finding the most efficient way to arrange circles in the plane, or spheres in space? But right now, millions of people all over the world are thinking about this very problem. From a report: Determining how to safely reopen buildings and public spaces under social distancing is in part an exercise in geometry: If each person must keep six feet away from everyone else, then figuring out how many people can sit in a classroom or a dining room is a question about packing non-overlapping circles into floor plans. Of course there’s a lot more to confronting COVID than just this geometry problem. But circle and sphere packing plays a part, just as it does in modeling crystal structures in chemistry and abstract message spaces in information theory.

It’s a simple-sounding problem that’s occupied some of history’s greatest mathematicians, and exciting research is still happening today, particularly in higher dimensions. For example, mathematicians recently proved the best way to pack spheres into 8- and 24-dimensional space — a technique essential for optimizing the error-correcting codes used in cell phones or for communication with space probes. So let’s take a look at some of the surprising complications that arise when we try to pack space with our simplest shape. If your job involves packing oranges in a box or safely seating students under social distancing, the size and shape of your container is a crucial component of the problem. But for most mathematicians, the theory of sphere packing is about filling all of space. In two dimensions, this means covering the plane with same-size circles that don’t overlap.

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