Arne Ristesund

This dizzying labyrinth will host next year’s party for math’s ‘Nobel’ prize

When mathematician Hans Munthe-Kaas of the University of Bergen in Norway was asked to help design a new botanical garden for his school, he had absolutely no idea what he could contribute. One year later, he has devised a wonder: a math-based labyrinth (above) that will feature in next year’s celebration for the winner of the Abel Prize.

Called the Archimedes Labyrinth, the maze occupies 800 square meters in Adiabata, a rain garden that takes its name from the adiabatic process that occurs when moist sea air is pushed over mountains.

To design the labyrinth, Munthe-Kaas started with spirals. He took particular inspiration from the Archimedes spiral, a curve that appears throughout the natural world, including in fiddlehead ferns. He next looked to the symmetrical, infinitely repeating, 2D patterns known as “wallpaper groups,” which can be seen in mosaics common in ancient and medieval buildings, like Spain’s Alhambra.

Just two of the 17 wallpaper groups had the spirals he was looking for—those with mirror symmetry, so that they head off in opposite directions wherever they meet. Of those two, one had an underlying lattice of hexagons, the other of squares. Munthe-Kaas chose the hexagons to make the maze “more fun to move within.” In additions, he says hexagons have a more organic feel—think of honeycombs or the shells of tortoises.  

The walls of the maze are made of yew trees, including several potted yews that can be moved around to change the arrangement of the maze. And because the labyrinth is so close to the Bergen airport, the striking design can be seen from the air.

The unique garden, which opened last weekend, will host part of next year’s celebration for the Abel Prize, often called the “Nobel” of math. Visitors will be invited to solve a puzzle based on clues scattered throughout the maze.

For Munthe-Kaas, who coincidentally serves as the current chair of the Abel Prize Committee, the project was great fun—and inspiring. The labyrinth is, he hopes, “something that will remain for hundreds of years.”