11 Apr

Side of Spherical Square

This post contains the details of the claim made in “More Spherical Construction” that you can determine the side length of a spherical square from the ratio between the lengths of its diagonals. We’ll do this on a sphere of radius one; everything scales by a factor of the radius for a general sphere.

The advantage of working on a sphere of radius one is that then the side length is nothing other than the measure of the central angle (in radians) between two adjacent vertices of the square. Similarly, the diagonal is the central angle between opposite vertices of the square.

The easiest way to construct a square on the unit sphere is to place its center at the intersection of the sphere and the x-axis, and then choose a (positive) angle $\theta \leq \tau/4$ (where $\tau = 2\pi$ is the radian measure of a full circle) and place two vertices at plus or minus $\theta$ (from the square’s center) in the longitudinal direction and two vertices at plus or minus $\theta$ in the latitudinal direction. In spherical coordinates, the center is at $(1,0,\tau/4)$ and the four vertices are at $(1,-\theta,\tau/4), (1,\theta,\tau/4), (1,0,\tau/4-\theta), (1,0,\tau/4+\theta)$. For this square, the diagonal is obviously $2\theta$; it remains only to compute the side length of the square.

Using the great-circle distance formula on the two points $(1,\theta,\tau/4)$ and $(1,0,\tau/4-\theta)$ yields a side length of \[\arccos(\cos(\tau/4)\cos(\tau/4-\theta) + \sin(\tau/4)\sin(\tau/4-\theta)\cos(\theta)\;).\]

Since $\cos(\tau/4)$ is 0 and $\sin(\tau/4)$ is 1, this expression equals \[\arccos(\sin(\tau/4-\theta)\cos(\theta)).\]

And further, $\sin(\tau/4-\theta) = \cos(\theta)$, so the side length is just \[\arccos(\cos^2 \theta).\]

Therefore, the ratio of the diagonal to the side of the square is $2\theta/\arccos(\cos^2 \theta)$. Graphing this on the allowed interval $(0,\tau/4]$ for $\theta$ immediately demonstrates the claims made in the referring post: no value of the ratio is repeated for different values of $\theta$, so the ratio determines the diagonal (and side length) of the square; the maximum value is 2; and any value greater than $\sqrt2$ is achievable.

If you’d rather not rely on graphing software to extract these facts, but rather demonstrate them just from the formulas, here’s how you can proceed. The value 2 at $\theta=\tau/4$ comes from straight substitution. The value at 0 by substitution is the indeterminate 0/0, so we obtain the value by L’Hôpital’s rule: the derivative of the numerator is 2, but the derivative of the denominator is \[\frac{2\cos \theta}{\sqrt{1+\cos^2\theta}},\] so the diagonal-side ratio has the limiting value $\sqrt2$ at $\theta =0$. Finally, we need to show that the ratio is monotone increasing on the interval of interest. By the quotient rule, this is equivalent to showing that on this interval \[\arccos(\cos^2\theta) > \frac{2\theta\cos\theta}{\sqrt{1+\cos^2\theta}}.\] Both sides are 0 at $\theta=0$, so we can take derivatives one more time; the derivative of the left-hand side is of course $2\cos\theta(1+\cos^2\theta)^{-1/2}$ again, which on this interval is always larger than the derivative of the right-hand side, namely $2\cos\theta(1+\cos^2\theta)^{-1/2} – 2\theta\sin\theta(1+\cos^2\theta)^{-3/2}$. So the left-hand side is also always larger than the right hand side, i.e., the derivative of the diagonal-side ratio is positive on this interval.

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