To explore simple curves.
- copy of "When is a Line Not a Line?" student handout
- 1 sheet of graph paper with 1-inch grid squares
- pencil with a sharp tip
Elliptic curves and modular forms were an essential part of Andrew Wiles'
proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Students can explore simple curves by
constructing their own in this activity.
Gather materials and distribute "When Is a Line Not a Line?" student handout to students. (For best
results, use graph paper with lines that are accurately printed.)
beginning the activity, introduce the term curve, and have students construct a
definition with which all can agree. This definition may be challenged and
revised as students start creating their designs.
Students will construct
curves on graph paper by connecting a series of points between the vertical and
After they have constructed their curves, have students share
their designs and explain the patterns they notice among the segments that make
up each curve. Did their definition of a curve change from when they first
started the activity? If so, how?
Students will notice that a curved line is formed from the modules created by
the intersection of the straight lines they drew between the vertical and
horizontal axes. The curve is made up of many, small straight lines, called
modules. The variation in length among the modules, along with a slight change
of each module's position relative to each axis, creates the simple curve.
As students measure the length of each module, they will notice that the
lengths differ in a regular pattern. (If a regular pattern does not emerge,
have students recheck their grids for drawing errors.) By drawing a line
through the 45 degree angle, students can observe that the curve is symmetric.
A curve formed from an even number of draw points will result in an even number
of modules on either side of the line of symmetry. A curve formed from an odd
number of draw points will have one of its modules bisected by the line of
When the distance between draw points is decreased, the resulting curve is made
up of shorter modules and appears smooth. When the distance between draw points
is increased, the resulting curve is made up of longer modules and appears
choppy. Depending on whether there is an even number of draw points or an odd
number of draw points along the vertical and horizontal axes, the module
measurements will differ in regular ways for each. As an extension, students
can experiment with changing the angle of the axes to create elliptic curves.
Slightly wider curves will result when the angles are greater than 90 degrees;
tighter curves will result when the angles are less than 90 degrees.