Bend Lego Bricks, Learn Some Geometry

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Is this art? Is it math? Or is it just a toy? It may be tough to tell from the photos of these elaborate geometric sculptures, but they're built from something you probably have in your home right now: Lego bricks.

In a world of Nintendo Wii's and Xbox Kinects, Lego bricks, with their lack of electric inputs and stationary nature, seem, well, a bit out-dated. But you might be surprised to learn there's still something new that can be done with them. That's if you're willing to refresh your math skills and bend the rules a little — or a lot — and follow the teachings of Jeff Sanders, of Portland, Ore.

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Recently featured in Wired’s Geek Dad blog, Sanders has dubbed his combination of Lego blocks and mathematics "brickbending." He describes it on his blog as "a construction technique used to transform regular old rectangular Lego bricks into smooth, curved geometrical shapes. There's no heating, melting or gluing involved, and although they show a little wear for the experience, your Lego bricks will come through the process intact."

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That's right, with some bricks and a little non-Euclidean geometry knowledge, you can be on your way to building these part-toy, part-math lesson sculptures at home.

A software consultant by day and devoted dad by night and day, Sanders began his Lego brick creations by accident last summer, while on a Lego bender (pun intended) with his daughters, now 6 and 9 years old.

“I just started putting pieces together and found that they had a little bit of flex,” Sanders told Discovery News. “And then I thought, ‘That’s really awesome.’”

Since that first Lego brick circle — which served as a corral for his daughters’ toy cows — the designs have gotten bigger and more complicated.

The slight bendability of the small 1×2 and 1×3 bricks, combined with mathematical principles, has allowed Sanders to keep building up and out with his designs. Right now, the largest, a “sunflower,” (pictured below) is made of more than 1,800 bricks.

Sanders speculates that his brickbending designs are the by-product of a once-started-but-never-finished master’s degree in math education.

“I’ve always been a visual thinker — I loved the graphs, parametric equations, graphing a function, sending it through time, watch it grow,” said Sanders, adding, “But, theoretical math, that’s out of my comprehension.”

He recalls the day he decided that a life devoted to math wasn’t for him: “The teacher told a (math) joke and everyone laughed but me.”

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Sanders may not have had excelled at math in the classroom, but his playtime tells a different story.

While having trouble working on one particular Lego spiral, he sat down and drew on paper what he was trying to do.

“When I mapped out what it was and I saw the proportions grow at a very specific ratio: 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, the Fibonacci sequence — it all just kind of clicked,” said Sanders. “It was first time it had actually really made sense.”

Now Sanders is hoping to bring that same revelation to kids and adults across the world. The only thing standing in his way is his lack of Lego bricks; he needs thousands of them and a camera.

The Kickstarter project, featured by "Wired," is an attempt to bring instructional videos to YouTube so that anyone, anywhere can bend Lego — and of course learn something, too.

“It’s a children’s toy; it’s something a lot of people really love, and this is a way to smuggle in math and science that’s really engaging,” said Sanders.

There's just one warning Sanders, as a cautious dad, wants to share with his brickbending followers: "The bricks are sometimes under an enormous amount of pressure and can explode; and they could pop you in the forehead or eye."

So please, brickbend with caution as you set out to create some of your own mathematical Lego sculptures. If you need ideas or direction, you can go to Sander's Brickbending Blog.

Photos courtesy of Jeff Sanders

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