The Valknut Challenge

I’ve been lacking in time and inspiration for blogging for a while now, but hopefully will get back into it again now that some of the chaos of Semester 2 has passed. As my come-back article I wanted to write about a fantastic evening I had at the RBS Museum Lates at the National Museum of Scotland just over a week ago.

The Museum Lates happen three times a year and are a chance for adults to get into the museum after hours to look at the collections whilst enjoying a cocktail and some live music. But they are much more than that! Each Late is themed in some way, and the theme this month was ‘Vikings’ to accompany the museum’s special exhibit. So guests were encouraged to dress up as Vikings, get their faces painted, touch Viking objects, make Viking paraphernalia (but NOT horned helmets – they aren’t Viking!), listen to Viking stories and eat Viking food. It was the perfect opportunity for us to get in some stealth maths engagement…

Viking Museum Late

(From left) Joshua, Helene and Madeleine all Vikinged up and ready to go.

My co-conspirator in this project was Madeleine Shepherd (who you may remember from lots of previous projects, including the last Alice In Wonderland themed museum late and also the Mathematicians’ Shirts project), and on the night we had two lovely assistants: Helene Frossling (Madeleine’s colleague at ICMS) and Joshua Prettyman (an undergraduate on my maths outreach team). Together we presented the public with…The Valknut Challenge!

In Viking mythology, the Valknut was the special symbol of Odin, king of the gods. It consisted of three interlocking circles, but if you removed any one of the circles then the other two would fall apart and would not be linked together at all. The Valknut Challenge is: can you draw/make the symbol? If you haven’t seen this before, you should have a go before scrolling down to see the picture.

The Valknut symbol is often found on Viking stones where Odin is depicted going into battle or standing over fallen warriors. It’s not hard to see why the symbol would be synonymous with strength in battle: the three interlocking circles symbolise the strength we have in acting together which falls apart when we go it alone. The same symbol has been found in many civilisations – for example, signifying the Trinity in Christianity.

Valknut on Viking stone

The Stora Hammars stone showing a Valknut above a scene of human sacrifice and next to some warriors. Powerful stuff.

Mathematically the symbol is called the Borromean rings (named for the Italian Borromeo family who used the symbol on their coat of arms). There are actually infinitely many different ways of solving the puzzle, and the Valknut is a special case of a more general puzzle where you have n circles and have to interlink them so that removing one ring makes the rest fall apart. Such a link is called a Brunnian link and they are particularly cool topological objects. 🙂

Standard Borromean rings

The standard Borromean rings.

Non-standard Borromean rings

A different solution to the Valknut challenge.

Non-standard Borromean rings 2

And another solution!

Most people have created a Valknut/Brunnian link in the course of their lives without ever realising it. Every knot or link can be drawn as a braid, and the Valknut is actually the standard 3-stranded braid that girls do in their hair all the time. Try making one and pulling out a strand – you’ll find that the other two strands become instantly untangled. This means you can quickly make a braid and harness the power of Odin whenever you need it – handy to remember next time you find yourself in battle.

The next Museum Late will be on 17th May with the theme of ‘Dinosaurs’.  If you missed out this time around then make sure you get tickets early for the next one! Anyone have any ideas for some surreptitious Jurassic mathematics that we can do?

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