The Helicoid (again!)

In 1760, Leonhard Euler studied the curvature of intersections of a surface with planes perpendicular to the surface, and showed that the maximal and minimal values of their curvature are attained along orthogonal curves. In 1776, Jean Baptiste Marie Charles Meusnier de la Place showed that for minimal surfaces these principal curvatures are equal with opposite sign. He went on to show that both the catenoid and the helicoid satisfy this condition, thus exhibiting the first two non-trivial examples of minimal surfaces. Euler had discussed the catenoid as a minimal surface before, but only in the context of surfaces of revolution.

In its standard representation as a ruled surface, the parameter lines are the asymptotic lines of the helicoid. For a change, here is the helicoid parametrized by its curvature lines:


The purpose of this note is a little craft, similar to what I explained earlier using Enneper’s surface: A ruled surface that has as directrix a curvature line of a given surface, and as generators the surface normals, will be flat and can thus be constructed by bending a strip of paper. Doing this for an entire rectangular grid of curvature lines results (for the helicoid) in an attractive object like this one:


To make a paper model, one first needs to find planar isometric copies of the ribbons. This is done by computing the geodesic curvature of the curvature lines of the helicoid, and, using the fundamental theorem of plane curves, then finding a planar curve with the same curvature. The (planar) ribbon is then bounded by parallel curves of this plane curve:

Js 01

Using four (due to the inevitable symmetry of things) copies of the template above, carefully cut out & slit, allows you to easily build the model below, which also makes a nice pendant. Print out the template so that the smallest distance between two slits is not much wider then your fingers, otherwise assembling the pieces will be tricky.

DSC 1166

Begin with the largest J-piece and use the four copies to build a frame, by sliding the hook into hook and non-hook into non-hook. Then continue inwards, adding four copies of the second largest J, by placing the hook of a new J next to a hook of the old J.

DSC 1169


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