The Dark Secret of Escher’s Shells

Escher's Shells

My favorite of the Escher plane tessellations is the one with shells. It is stunning, and the mathematics behind it is beautiful. I want to thank the late John Conway for teaching me the secret of this drawing.

Mathematicians are interested in tessellations because of the symmetries behind them. This tessellation has translational and rotational symmetries. Can you find them?

When I ask my students to find the rotational symmetries, they immediately tell me that they see two different 4-fold points, aka points where 90-degree rotations preserve the drawing. One point, I call G, is where four greenish shells meet, and one point, I call R, is where four reddish shells meet.

As you might have guessed, the students’ answer is not quite correct. There is more to the picture. Look at a dark-brown shell that looks like a curvy rectangle. This shape has markings. Now look at a specific point R and its four closest brown shells. You can see that going around this point R, the brown shells alternate their orientation: the darker side of these shells either faces towards point R or away.

The big secret of this artwork is that it contains TWO symmetry groups: a group and a subgroup. If we ignore the markings on the brown shells and consider them one solid color, then point R is indeed a 4-fold symmetry point. In addition, the center of the brown shape is a 2-fold symmetry point. Thus, the symmetry group of this simplified drawing is 442 in orbifold notation.

If we take the markings of the brown shells into account, then point R is not a 4-fold rotation, it is a 2-fold rotation. Point G keeps the property of being a 4-fold rotation. If you know your symmetry groups, you can conclude that there should be another 4-fold rotation. But where is it?

I will spill my answer. The symmetry point G is not ONE symmetry point anymore. There are two different points where greenish shells meet. The dark side of the brown shells faces one of them and looks away from the other.

The dark secret of this drawing is that it demonstrates two symmetry groups: group 442 and its subgroup 442, with different fundamental regions. To see the secret, you must look closely at a dark brown shell and find its darker side.


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