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There is an old puzzle which starts by asking: what is the next number in the sequence 1,2,4,? We are supposed to recognize the start of the sequence and answer that the next number is surely 8, because the first three numbers are consecutive powers of 2, and so the next number should be the cube of 2 which is 8. The puzzler then explains (contrary to expectations) that the successive terms in the sequence are actually the number of regions into which the plane is divided by a collection of lines in general position (so that any two lines intersect, and no three lines intersect in a single point). Thus:


So the “correct” answer to the puzzle is 7 (and the sequence continues 11, 26, \cdots (n^2+n+2)/2). This is somehow meant to illustrate some profound point; I don’t quite see it myself. Anyway, I would like to suggest that there is a natural sense in which the “real” answer should actually be 8 after all, and it’s the point of this short blog post to describe some connections between this puzzle, the theory of cube complexes (which is at the heart of Agol’s recent proof of the Virtual Haken Conjecture), and the location of the missing 8th region.

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When I was in Melbourne recently, I spent some time browsing through a copy of “Twelve Geometric Essays” by Harold Coxeter in the (small) library at AMSI. One of these essays was entitled “The classification of zonohedra by means of projective diagrams”, and it contained a very cute proof of the Sylvester-Gallai theorem, which I thought would make a nice (short!) blog post.

The Sylvester-Gallai theorem says that a finite collection of points in a projective plane are either all on a line, or else there is some line that contains exactly two of the points. Coxeter’s proof of this theorem falls out incidentally from an apparently unrelated study of certain polyhedra known as zonohedra.

For subsets P and Q of a vector space V, the Minkowski sum P+Q is the set of points of the form p+q for p\in P and q \in Q. If P and Q are polyhedra, so is P + Q, and the vertices of P+Q are sums of vertices of P and Q. One natural way to think of P+Q is that it is the projection of the product P\times Q under the affine map +:V\times V \to V.

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