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Marjorie Rice

Posted by E Nadler on 28th Mar 2024

Hello friends! Sincerest apologies for my lacking performance recently. We hoped to release a blog every week this month, but alas life has rewritten our plans - ce la vie! So, with apologies out of the way, let's get to talking about a magical mathematician who also didn't follow a traditional path - Marjorie Rice.

Shortly after being born in Florida in 1923, Marjorie's family moved to a farm in southern Oregon. There she grew a fascination with mathematics. Math came easily to her and she enjoyed discovering the reasons behind mathematical methods. 

Unfortunately, after attending high school and taking only the required general math classes, Marjorie would leave math behind and pursue a secretarial path. And after marrying her husband Gilbert in 1945, their new family moved to San Diego where Marjorie followed a more traditional gender role as the homemaker and mother. However drab this might have seemed, she cherished her time helping her eldest son with his math homework. Since she never learned most mathematical methods, she learned how to solve problems her own way next to him, often finding the same correct answers. 

Marjorie's mathematical fate would yet again find her when she bought her son a subscription to Scientific American, which she would read during the day while her children were at school. She was most interested in a column written by Martin Gardner called, "Mathematical Games." In 1975 this column sent her down the rabbit hole of tessellation. To myself and other not-so-skilled-at-math friends out there, tessellation is the math concept of repeating shapes covering a flat surface without gaps or overlapping one another. Square tiles can do this. Triangles can do this. But circles? No way. So, Mr. Gardner and his colleagues were interested in how tessellation might work with shapes that had more sides, such as pentagons. At the time, mathematicians believed that only eight types of pentagons could tile a plane, but this would be challenged. Inspired, Marjorie was set on finding her own examples of tiling pentagons.

In a later interview, Marjorie is quoted, “I thought, my, that must be wonderful that someone could discover these things which no one had seen before, these beautiful patterns.” Having no formal training, she developed her own organizing and notation systems to categorize the known tiling pentagons. She worked in private, away from her family. And after only a couple months of work she discovered a new type of tessellating pentagon! Excited by her discovery, she sent her work to Mr. Gardner who then sent the work to a professional tiling expert at Moravian College in Pennsylvania, Doris Schattschneider, who then confirmed the accuracy of Marjorie's findings. 

Following this, Doris and Marjorie quickly became friends. Doris would send Marjorie articles on tiling and Marjorie would continue down rabbit holes of research. Within that same year she would discover two more types of tiling pentagons; and a year later she discovered yet another - a total of four discoveries in all. 

In the 1990s, Marjorie was interview for the documentary, "The Nature of Things." And one of her patterns was created into a tiling masterpiece for the foyer of the Mathematical Association of America Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Marjorie never became a "professional" mathematician. She never taught courses or gave lectures. She preferred to remain out of the spotlight. However, her good friend Doris introduced her during a lecture at the Mathematical Association of America, to which she was greeted with a standing ovation. 

In the year of her death, 2017, a scientist used a computer program to determine if all possible pentagon tiling patterns had been found. Of the total 15, Marjorie had single handedly discovered four of them. Marjorie loved puzzles, never ceasing her curiosity and exploration. 

I believe Marjorie Rice is a beacon of light for everyone who wants to go against the grain, especially in STEM fields. You go girl!