Wabash Summer Research: In Our Own Words is a multimedia piece that uses the voices of Wabash College students to describe still photographs of their summer research work in the biology, chemistry, physics, and 3D printing laboratories on campus. The piece includes photographs by Grace Vaught with editing done by Austin Myers ’16.
A 3D printer helped bring a 1,500-year-old mathematics text to life.
While working on a manuscript of his own, assistant professor of mathematics Colin McKinney was perusing a text written in the late fifth century A.D. by Eutocius that described in great detail how to construct a device that would solve a basic geometry problem.
According to McKinney, Eutocius was very detailed in his descriptions of the mesolabe, right down to its dovetail-shaped groves.
“The text that describes this instrument is very clear in the language of how to construct it,” McKinney said. “For a mathematical text, that is kind of interesting.”
Sufficiently intrigued, McKinney was faced with a choice. He could spend the better part of a weekend carving it out of wood or he could 3D print it, “and that seemed much easier,” he laughed.
Using Eutocius’ descriptions, McKinney designed the piece in an hour or two and used the Wabash 3D Printing and Fabrication Center to pint it. From inspiration to prototype took the better part of an afternoon.
“The advantage of 3D printing is you can try something and make modifications quickly,” McKinney said. “If I’m making this out of wood and discovered it wouldn’t work, that would have been an entire weekend gone. It really accelerates the rate at which you can try different things.”
The extruded plastic output also solidified a connection to the text that was unexpected. McKinney got a qualitative response to a very quantitative problem.
“That’s the awesome part,” he explained. “It’s real math history and to be able to make something that’s described in a text just totally changes that text. To be able to say here is the 21st century version of that fourth century device really brings it to life in a way the text in itself doesn’t.”
What began as work on a research paper soon grew into something bigger.
“To be able to get this thing prototyped quickly meant that I could keep making progress on that paper,” McKinney said. “I knew it would work in a geometric sense because I could prove that, but it’s totally different to put this on a piece of paper and, bam, those are the links right there that I need.”
The success McKinney enjoyed in crafting the mesolabe with the 3D printer has led him to attempt to produce more complicated devices. It’s also spawned a second paper.