Area of a triangle: Pick’s theorem (Part 8)

The following is one of my all-time favorite paragraphs to ever appear in a professional mathematical journal.

Some years ago, the Northwest Mathematics Conference was held in Eugene, Oregon. To add a bit of local flavor, a forester was included on the program, and those who attended his session were introduced to a variety of nice examples which illustrated the important role that mathematics plays in the forest industry. One of his problems was concerned with the calculation of the area inside a polygonal region drawn to scale from field data obtained for a stand of timber by a timber cruiser. The standard method is to overlay a scale drawing with a transparency on which a square dot pattern is printed. Except for a factor dependent on the relative sizes of the drawing and the square grid, the area inside the polygon is computed by counting all of the dots fully inside the polygon, and then adding half of the number of dots which fall on the bounding edges of the polygon. Although the speaker was not aware that he was essentially using Pick’s formula, I was delighted to see that one of my favorite mathematical results was not only beautiful, but even useful.

D. DeTemple, cited in Branko Grunbaum and G. C. Shephard, “Pick’s Theorem,” American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 100, pp. 150-161 (February 1993).

Suppose that the vertices of a triangle are (1,1), (3,5), and (4,2). What is the area of the triangle?

latticetriangleBecause the vertices of the triangle have integer coordinates, Pick’s Theorem offers an exceedingly simple way of finding the area of this triangle.

  1. There are 6 points (marked white) that are inside the triangle.
  2. There are 4 points (marked red) that are on the boundary of the triangle, including the three corners.
  3. Therefore, the area is A = 6 + \frac{1}{2} (4) - 1 = 7.

You can confirm this area by drawing the rectangle with corners at (1,1), (5,1), (5,5), and (1,5) and then taking away the three right triangles, leaving the triangle shown in the figure above.

Amazingly, this theorem is true for any polygonal figure — not just triangles — whose vertices have integer coordinates.

A decent classroom activity so that students can discover Pick’s theorem for themselves has been published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. I modified this activity to teach my daughter and her friends last summer, so I say from first-hand experience that fourth-graders can use inductive reasoning to guess Pick’s theorem.

Additional references:

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