Ivars Peterson's MathTrek
July 28, 2003
Another group of tetrahedra that some people consider special consists of those that have integer edge lengths, face areas, and volumes. Such a solid is sometimes called a Heronian tetrahedron or a perfect pyramid.
The term "Heronian" refers to Heron of Alexandria (1090). His name is also attached to a formula that relates the area of a triangle, A, to the lengths of its three sides, a, b, and c.
There's an analogous formula for the volume of a tetrahedron, given the lengths of its six edges.
Tetrahedra with integer sides, face areas, and volumes are rare. For example, there's only one perfect pyramid (or Heronian tetrahedron) with integer sides less than 157. It has sides of length 51, 52, 53, 80, 84, and 117; faces of area 1170, 1800, 1890, and 2016; and a volume of 18144. (See http://www.geocities.com/teufel_pi/trailers/pp.html for an image.) Nonetheless, you can prove that are infinitely many such tetrahedra. Indeed, Ralph H. Buchholz did so in a 1992 paper on perfect pyramids.
Buccholz performed a number of searches, identifying various special cases. For instance, it's clear that a tetrahedron in which all the edges have the same length or one in which each edge has one of just two values can have an integer volume. However, a tetrahedron with four identical faces, where each of the three sides of a face has a different length, can be Heronian. For example, a tetrahedron with pairs of opposite edges of length 888, 875, and 533 has a volume of 37608480.
Recently, Randall L. Rathbun created a database of all 5,801,746 Heronian triangles having perimeters smaller than 217. Those triangles can then be used as the basis of a search for "interesting" Heronian tetrahedra.
So, what's the smallest Heronian tetrahedron in terms of volume and surface area? It's the one with edges 25, 39, 56, 120, 153, 160; a surface area of 6384; and a volume of 8064.
Among other things, Rathbun has also identified the smallest pair of primitive Heronian tetrahedra with the same surface area:
Here's the first occurrence of three Heronian tetrahedra with the same volume:
There's no trace yet of three primitive Heronian tetrahedra that have the same surface area.
Other questions remain. For instance, is there a pair of Heronian tetrahedra with the same surface area and the same volume? No one knows yet.
Is there more to be discovered about perfect pyramids? Undoubtedly.
Copyright 2003 by Ivars Peterson
Buchholz, R.H. 1992. Perfect pyramids. Bulletin of the Australian Mathematical Society 45(No. 3). Available at http://www.geocities.com/teufel_pi/papers/perfectpyramids.pdf.
Peterson, I. 1999. Euler bricks and perfect polyhedra. MAA Online (Oct. 23).
Basic information about Heronian tetrahedra can be found at http://mathworld.wolfram.com/HeronianTetrahedron.html.
Comments are welcome. Please send messages to Ivars Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A collection of Ivars Peterson's early MathTrek articles, updated and illustrated, is now available as the MAA book Mathematical Treks: From Surreal Numbers to Magic Circles. Find it at the MAA Bookstore.