Recording, oral

Convex Billiards and non-Holonomic Systems

"Given a closed, convex curve C in the plane, a billiard path on C is a polygon P inscribed in C such that, at each vertex v of P, the two edges of P incident with v make equal angles with the tangent line to C at v. (Intuitively, this is the path a billiard ball would follow on a frictionless pool table bounded by C.) For most convex curves C, there are only a finite number of triangular billiard paths on C, a finite number of quadrilateral billiard paths, and so on. Obviously, when C is a circle, there are infinitely many closed billiard n-gons inscribed in C, but, surprisingly, the same is true when C is an ellipse. (This is a famous theorem due to Chasles.) The interesting question is whether there are other curves, besides ellipses, for which this is true. In this talk, I'll discuss the above-mentioned phenomenon and show how it is related to the geometry of non-holonomic plane fields (which will be defined and described). This leads to some surprisingly beautiful geometry, which will require nothing beyond multivariable calculus from the audience."