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Sphere packing

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Title: Sphere packing  
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Subject: Packing problems, Tetrahedron packing, Kepler conjecture, Circle packing, Discrete geometry
Collection: Crystallography, Discrete Geometry, Packing Problems, Spheres
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Sphere packing

Sphere packing finds practical application in the stacking of oranges.

In geometry, a sphere packing is an arrangement of non-overlapping spheres within a containing space. The spheres considered are usually all of identical size, and the space is usually three-dimensional Euclidean space. However, sphere packing problems can be generalised to consider unequal spheres, n-dimensional Euclidean space (where the problem becomes circle packing in two dimensions, or hypersphere packing in higher dimensions) or to non-Euclidean spaces such as hyperbolic space.

A typical sphere packing problem is to find an arrangement in which the spheres fill as large a proportion of the space as possible. The proportion of space filled by the spheres is called the density of the arrangement. As the local density of a packing in an infinite space can vary depending on the volume over which it is measured, the problem is usually to maximise the average or asymptotic density, measured over a large enough volume.

For equal spheres the densest packing uses approximately 74% of the volume. Random packing of equal spheres generally have a density around 64%.


  • Classification and terminology 1
  • Regular packing 2
    • Dense packing 2.1
    • Other common lattice packings 2.2
    • Jammed packings with a low density 2.3
  • Irregular packing 3
  • Hypersphere packing 4
  • Unequal sphere packing 5
  • Hyperbolic space 6
  • Touching pairs, triplets, and quadruples 7
  • Other spaces 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Bibliography 11
  • External links 12

Classification and terminology

A lattice arrangement (commonly called a regular arrangement) is one in which the centers of the spheres form a very symmetric pattern which only needs n vectors to be uniquely defined (in n-dimensional Euclidean space). Lattice arrangements are periodic. Arrangements in which the spheres do not form a lattice (often referred to as irregular) can still be periodic, but also aperiodic (properly speaking non-periodic) or random. Lattice arrangements are easier to handle than irregular ones—their high degree of symmetry makes it easier to classify them and to measure their densities.

Regular packing

Regular arrangement of equal spheres in a plane changing to an irregular arrangement of unequal spheres (bubbles).
HCP lattice (left) and the FCC lattice (right) are the two most common highest density arrangements. Note that the two groups shown here are not unit cells that are capable of tessellating in 3D space. These groups do, however, readily illustrate the difference between the two lattices.
Two ways to stack three planes made of spheres

Dense packing

In three-dimensional Euclidean space, the densest packing of equal spheres is achieved by a family of structures called close-packed structures. One method for generating such a structure is as follows. Consider a plane with a compact arrangement of spheres on it. For any three neighbouring spheres, a fourth sphere can be placed on top in the hollow between the three bottom spheres. If we do this "everywhere" in a second plane above the first, we create a new compact layer. A third layer can be placed directly above the first one, or the spheres can be offset, vertically above another set of hollows of the first layer. There are thus three types of planes, called A, B and C.

Two simple arrangements within the close-packed family correspond to regular lattices. One is called cubic close packing (or face centred cubic, "FCC") — where the layers are alternated in the ABCABC… sequence. The other is called hexagonal close packing ("HCP") — where the layers are alternated in the ABAB… sequence. But many layer stacking sequences are possible (ABAC, ABCBA, ABCBAC, etc.), and still generate a close-packed structure. In all of these arrangements each sphere is surrounded by 12 other spheres, and the average density is

\frac{\pi}{3\sqrt{2}} \simeq 0.74048.

Gauss proved in 1831 that these packings have the highest density amongst all possible lattice packings.[1]

In 1611 Johannes Kepler had conjectured that this is the maximum possible density amongst both regular and irregular arrangements — this became known as the Kepler conjecture. In 1998, Thomas Callister Hales, following the approach suggested by László Fejes Tóth in 1953, announced a proof of the Kepler conjecture. Hales' proof is a proof by exhaustion involving checking of many individual cases using complex computer calculations. Referees said that they were "99% certain" of the correctness of Hales' proof. On 10 August 2014 Hales announced the completion of a formal proof using automated proof checking, removing any doubt.[2]

Other common lattice packings

Some other lattice packings are often found in physical systems. These include the cubic lattice with a density of \frac{\pi}{6} \simeq 0.5236., the hexagonal lattice with a density of \frac{\pi}{3\sqrt{3}} \simeq 0.6046 , and the tetrahedral lattice with a density of \frac{\pi\sqrt{3}}{16} \simeq 0.3401 and loosest possible at a density of 0.0555.[3]

Jammed packings with a low density

Packings where all spheres are constrained by their neighbours to stay in one location are called rigid or jammed. The strictly jammed sphere packing with the lowest density is a diluted ("tunneled") fcc crystal with a density of only 0.49365.[4]

Irregular packing

If we attempt to build a densely packed collection of spheres we will be tempted to always place the next sphere in a hollow between three packed spheres. If five spheres are assembled in this way, they will be consistent with one of the regularly packed arrangements described above. However, the sixth sphere placed in this way will render the structure inconsistent with any regular arrangement. This results in the possibility of a random close packing of spheres which is stable against compression.[5]

When spheres are randomly added to a container and then compressed, they will generally form what is known as an "irregular" or "jammed" packing configuration when they can be compressed no more. This irregular packing will generally have a density of about 64%. Recent research predicts analytically that it cannot exceed a density limit of 63.4%[6] This situation is unlike the case of one or two dimensions, where compressing a collection of 1-dimensional or 2-dimensional spheres (i.e. line segments or disks) will yield a regular packing.

Hypersphere packing

The sphere packing problem is the three-dimensional version of a class of ball-packing problems in arbitrary dimensions. In two dimensions, the equivalent problem is packing circles on a plane.

In dimensions higher than three, the densest regular packings of hyperspheres are known up to 8 dimensions.[7] Very little is known about irregular hypersphere packings; it is possible that in some dimensions the densest packing may be irregular. Some support for this conjecture comes from the fact that in certain dimensions (e.g. 10) the densest known irregular packing is denser than the densest known regular packing.[8]

Dimension 24 is special due to the existence of the Leech lattice, which has the best kissing number and is the densest lattice packing. No better irregular packing is known, and an irregular packing could, at best, improve over the Leech lattice packing by a factor of less than 1+2×10−30.[9]

Another line of research in high dimensions is trying to find asymptotic bounds for the density of the densest packings. Currently the best known result is that there exists a lattice in dimension n with density bigger or equal to cn2^{-n} for some number c.[10]

Unequal sphere packing

A dense packing of spheres with a radius ratio of 0.64799 and a density of 0.74786[11]

Many problems in the chemical and physical sciences can be related to packing problems where more than one size of sphere is available. Here there is a choice between separating the spheres into regions of close-packed equal spheres, or combining the multiple sizes of spheres into a compound or interstitial packing. When many sizes of spheres (or a distribution) are available, the problem quickly becomes intractable, but some studies of binary hard spheres (two sizes) are available.

When the second sphere is much smaller than the first, it is possible to arrange the large spheres in a close-packed arrangement, and then arrange the small spheres within the octahedral and tetrahedral gaps. The density of this interstitial packing depends sensitively on the radius ratio, but in the limit of extreme size ratios, the smaller spheres can fill the gaps with the same density as the larger spheres filled space.[12] Even if the large spheres are not in a close-packed arrangement, it is always possible to insert some smaller spheres of up to 0.29099 of the radius of the larger sphere.[13]

When the smaller sphere has a radius greater than 0.41421 of the radius of the larger sphere, it is no longer possible to fit into even the octahedral holes of the close-packed structure. Thus, beyond this point, either the host structure must expand to accommodate the interstitials (which compromises the overall density), or rearrange into a more complex crystalline compound structure. Structures are known which exceed the close packing density for radius ratios up to 0.659786.[11][14]

Upper bounds for the density that can be obtained in such binary packings have also been obtained.[15]

In many chemical situations such as ionic crystals, the stoichiometry is constrained by the charges of the constituent ions. This additional constraint on the packing, together with the need to minimize the Coulomb energy of interacting charges leads to a diversity of optimal packing arrangements.

Hyperbolic space

Although the concept of circles and spheres can be extended to hyperbolic space, finding the densest packing becomes much more difficult. In a hyperbolic space there is no limit to the number of spheres that can surround another sphere (for example, Ford circles can be thought of as an arrangement of identical hyperbolic circles in which each circle is surrounded by an infinite number of other circles). The concept of average density also becomes much more difficult to define accurately. The densest packings in any hyperbolic space are almost always irregular.[16]

Despite this difficulty, K. Böröczky gives a universal upper bound for the density of sphere packings of hyperbolic n-space where n \geq 2 .[17] In three dimensions the Böröczky bound is approximately 85.327613%, and is realized by the horosphere packing of the order-6 tetrahedral honeycomb with Schläfli symbol {3,3,6}.[18] In addition to this configuration at least three other horosphere packings are known to exist in hyperbolic 3-space that realize the density upper bound.[19]

Touching pairs, triplets, and quadruples

The contact graph of an arbitrary finite packing of unit balls is the graph whose vertices correspond to the packing elements and whose two vertices are connected by an edge if the corresponding two packing elements touch each other. The cardinality of the edge set of the contact graph gives the number of touching pairs, the number of 3-cycles in the contact graph gives the number of touching triplets, and the number of tetrahedrons in the contact graph gives the number of touching quadruples (in general for a contact graph associated with a sphere packing in n-dimensions that the cardinality of the set of n-simplices in the contact graph gives the number of touching (n+1)-tuples in the sphere packing). In the case of 3-dimensional Euclidean space, non-trivial upper bounds on the number of touching pairs, triplets, and quadruples[20] were proved by Karoly Bezdek and Samuel Reid at the University of Calgary.

Other spaces

Sphere packing on the corners of a hypercube (with the spheres defined by Hamming distance) corresponds to designing error-correcting codes: if the spheres have radius t, then their centers are codewords of a 2t+1-error-correcting code. Lattice packings correspond to linear codes. There are other, subtler relationships between Euclidean sphere packing and error-correcting codes. For example, the binary Golay code is closely related to the 24-dimensional Leech lattice.

For further details on these connections, see the book of Conway and Sloane.

See also


  1. ^ C.F. Gauss (1831). "Besprechung des Buchs von L.A. Seeber: Intersuchungen über die Eigenschaften der positiven ternären quadratischen Formen usw". Göttingsche Gelehrte Anzeigen. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ "Wolfram Math World, Sphere packing". 
  4. ^  
  5. ^ Chaikin, Paul (June 2007). "Random thoughts". Physics Today (American Institute of Physics) 60 (6): 8.  
  6. ^ Song, C.; Wang, P.; Makse, H. A. (29 May 2008). "A phase diagram for jammed matter".  
  7. ^ Weisstein, Eric W., "Hypersphere Packing", MathWorld.
  8. ^ Sloane, N. J. A. (1998). "The Sphere-Packing Problem". Documenta Mathematika 3: 387–396.  
  9. ^ Cohn, Henry; Kumar, Abhinav (2009). "Optimality and uniqueness of the Leech lattice among lattices". Annals of Mathematics 170 (3): 1003–1050.  
  10. ^ Rogers, C. A. (1947). "Existence Theorems in the Geometry of Numbers". Annals of Mathematics. Second Series 48 (4): 994–1002.  
  11. ^ a b O’Toole, P. I.; Hudson, T. S. (2011). "New High-Density Packings of Similarly Sized Binary Spheres". The Journal of Physical Chemistry C 115 (39): 19037.  
  12. ^ Hudson, D. R. (1949). "Density and Packing in an Aggregate of Mixed Spheres". Journal of Applied Physics 20 (2): 154–162.  
  13. ^ Zong, C. (2002). "From deep holes to free planes". Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 39 (4): 533–555.  
  14. ^ Marshall, G. W.; Hudson, T. S. (2010). "Dense binary sphere packings". Contributions to Algebra and Geometry 51 (2): 337–344. 
  15. ^ de Laat, David; de Oliveira Filho, Fernando Mario; Vallentin, Frank (12 June 2012). "Upper bounds for packings of spheres of several radii". Retrieved 11 December 2013. 
  16. ^ Bowen, L.; Radin, C. (2002). "Densest Packing of Equal Spheres in Hyperbolic Space". Discrete and Computational Geometry 29: 23–39.  
  17. ^ Böröczky, K. (1978). "Packing of spheres in spaces of constant curvature". Acta Mathematica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 32 (3–4): 243–261.  
  18. ^ Böröczky, K.; Florian, A. (1964). "Über die dichteste Kugelpackung im hyperbolischen Raum". Acta Mathematica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 15: 237.  
  19. ^ Kozma, R. T.; Szirmai, J. (2012). "Optimally dense packings for fully asymptotic Coxeter tilings by horoballs of different types". Monatshefte für Mathematik 168: 27.  
  20. ^ Bezdek, Karoly; Reid, Samuel (2012). "Contact Graphs of Sphere Packings Revisited". 


  • Aste T, Weaire D (2000). The Pursuit of Perfect Packing. London: Institute of Physics Publishing.  
  • Conway JH, Sloane NJH (1998). Sphere Packings, Lattices and Groups (3rd ed.).  
  • Sloane, N. J. A. (1984). "The Packing of Spheres". Scientific American 250: 116–125.  

External links

  • Dana Mackenzie (May 2002) "A fine mess" (New Scientist)
A non-technical overview of packing in hyperbolic space.
  • Weisstein, Eric W., "Circle Packing", MathWorld.
  • "Kugelpackungen (Sphere Packing)" (T.E. Dorozinski)
  • "3D Sphere Packing Applet" Sphere Packing java applet
  • "Densest Packing of spheres into a sphere" java applet
  • "Database of sphere packings" (Erik Agrell)
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