Stackable Letters

How many disjoint letters “O” can you draw on a plane? Clearly, the answer is infinitely many. Now the real question is whether this number can be uncountable. We assume that the letter “O” is just a circle. In this case, if we draw all possible concentric circles, we get an uncountable number of circles. I call letters for which you can build a disjoint uncountable set on the plane stackable letters.

If we do not allow one letter “O” to be drawn inside another, then we can prove that it is not possible to draw more than a countable number of letters “O”. Indeed, we can always find a special point inside each letter “O” with both coordinates being rational numbers. As circles do not overlap, no two circles can share the same special point. The set of ordered pairs of rational numbers is countable, thus this set of letters “O” has to be countable.

Now let us move to a more interesting question: how many disjoint letters “T” can you draw on a plane? Let us define the letter “T” as two perpendicular line segments, where the end point of one of the segments is the middle point of the other. Prove that the letter “T” is unstackable.

Can you analyze the whole alphabet for stackability? It doesn’t matter which alphabet — you just need to define the drawing of every letter in some reasonable manner.

My real question is, can you define the drawings of English letters in such a way that they are recognizable and the number of stackable letters is maximized? What is the biggest number of letters that you can make stackable?

I brought up this subject to my son Sergei one fine morning. As a result we came up with the following breakfast theorem: Stackable letters are topologically equivalent to a line segment or a circle.

And here is our proof. If the letter in question has a part which is topologically equivalent to “T”, then the letter is not stackable, because “T” is not stackable.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, this is not the whole story. The stackability of each letter depends on how you define its shape. There are two groups of letters in the English alphabet that you can make stackable. The first group consists of letters like “V” that can be described as a function on a segment and stacked as a parallel translation of the same letter. The second group, like letter “O”, can be described as a function of an angle in polar coordinates, and stacked as a dilation of the same letter.

It is clear that this doesn’t cover all cases. For example, a piece of a spiral can be stackable — you stack it by rotating it.

I invite my readers to define two different homeomorphic shapes for the same letter — stackable and unstackable.



  1. misha:

    It looks like the stackable letters are topological manifolds (possibly with a boundary), and non-stackable are not. The capital D in some fonts is homeomorphic to O, and in some fonts is not. G, I and r are also stackable in some fonts and not in the other.

  2. misha:

    Z may be a good candidate for a letter that you are asking for.

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