The Universe of Discourse
Mon, 06 Aug 2007

Standard analytic polyhedra
If you want to consider a cube analytically, you have an easy job. The vertices lie at the points:

And you can see at a glance whether two vertices share an edge (they are the same in two of their three components) or are opposite (they differ in all three components).

Last week I was reading the Wikipedia article about the computer game "Hunt the Wumpus", which I played as a small child. For the Guitar Hero / WoW generation I should explain Wumpus briefly.

The object of "Wumpus" is to kill the Wumpus, which hides in a network of twenty caves arranged in a dodecahedron. Each cave is thus connected to three others. On your turn, you may move to an adjacent cave or shoot a crooked arrow. The arrow can pass through up to five connected caves, and if it enters the room where the Wumpus is, it kills him and you win. Two of the caves contain bottomless pits; to enter these is death. Two of the caves contain giant bats, which will drop you into another cave at random; if it contains a pit, too bad. If you are in a cave adjacent to a pit, you can feel a draft; if you are adjacent to bats, you can hear them. If you are adjacent to the Wumpus, you can smell him. If you enter the Wumpus's cave, he eats you. If you shoot an arrow that fails to kill him, he wakes up and moves to an adjacent cave; if he enters you cave, he eats you. You have five arrows.

I did not learn until much later that the caves are connected in a dodecahedron; indeed, at the time I probably didn't know what a dodecahedron was. The twenty caves were numbered, so that cave 1 was connected to 2, 5, and 8. This necessitated a map, because otherwise it was too hard to remember which room was connected to which.

Or did it? If the map had been a cube, the eight rooms could have been named 000, 001, 010, etc., and then it would have been trivial to remember: 011 is connected to 111, 001, and 010, obviously, and you can see it at a glance. It's even easy to compute all the paths between two vertices: the paths from 011 to 000 are 011–010–000 and 011–001–000; if you want to allow longer paths you can easily come up with 011–111–110–100–000 for example.

And similarly, the Wumpus source code contains a table that records which caves are connected to which, and consults this table in many places. If the caves had been arranged in a cube, no table would have been required. Or if one was wanted, it could have been generated algorithmically.

So I got to wondering last week if there was an analogous nomenclature for the vertices of a dodecahedron that would have obviated the Wumpus map and the table in the source code.

I came up with a very clever proof that there was none, which would have been great, except that the proof also worked for the tetrahedron, and the tetrahedron does have such a convenient notation: you can name the vertices (0,0,0), (0,1,1), (1,0,1), and (1,1,0), where there must be an even number of 1 components. (I mentioned this yesterday in connection with something else and promised to come back to it. Here it is.) So the proof was wrong, which was good, and I kept thinking about it.

The next-simplest case is the octahedron, and I racked my brains trying to come up with a convenient notation for the vertices that would allow one to see at a glance which were connected. When I finally found it, I felt like a complete dunce. The octahedron has six vertices, which are above, below, to the left of, to the right of, in front of, and behind the center. Their coordinates are therefore (1,0,0), (-1,0,0), (0,1,0), (0,-1,0), (0,0,1) and (0,0,-1). Two vertices are opposite when they have two components the same (necessarily both 0) and one different (necessarily negatives). Otherwise, they are connected by an edge. This is really simple stuff.

Still no luck with the dodecahedron. There are nice canonical representations of the coordinates of the vertices—see the Wikipedia article, for example—but I still haven't looked at it closely enough to decide if there is a simple procedure for taking two vertices and determining their geometric relation at a glance. Obviously, you can check for adjacent vertices by calculating the distance between them and seeing if it's the correct value, but that's not "at a glance"; arithmetic is forbidden.

It's easy to number the vertices in layers, say by calling the top five vertices A1 ... A5, then the five below that B1 ... B5, and so on. Then it's easy to see that A3 will be adjacent to A2, A4, and B3, for example.

But this nomenclature, unlike the good ones above, is not isometric: it has a preferred orientation of the dodecahedron. It's obvious that A1, A2, A3, A4, and A5 form a pentagonal face, but rather harder to see that A2, A3, B2, B3, and C5 do. With the cube, it's easy to see what a rotation or a reflection looks like. For example, rotation of 120° around an axis through a pair of vertices of the cube takes vertex (a, b, c) to (c, a, b); rotation of 90° around an axis through a face takes it to (1-b, a, c). Similarly, rotations and reflections of the tetrahedron correspond to simple permutations of the components of the vertices. Nothing like this exists for the A-B-C-D nomenclature for the dodecahedron.

I'll post if I come up with anything nice.

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