Squircle perimeter and the isoparametric problem

If you have a fixed length of rope and you want to enclose the most area inside the rope, make it into a circle. This is the solution to the so-called isoparametric problem.

Dido’s problem is similar. If one side of your bounded area is given by a straight line, make your rope into a semi-circle.

This post looks at a similar problem for a squircle. Peter Panholzer mentioned the problem of finding the squircle exponent that led to the largest area in proportion to its arclength. This sounds like the isoparametric problem, but it’s not.

The isoparametric problem holds perimeter constant and lets the shape enclosed vary, maximizing the area. The question here is to hold the axes constant and maximize the ratio of the area to the perimeter. Panholzer reports the maximum occurs at p = 4.39365.

Computing the perimeter

The volume of a squircle can be found in closed form, and I’ve mentioned the equation a few times, for example here. The perimeter, however, cannot be found in closed form, as far as I know, except for special exponents.

We can solve for y as a function of x and find the arclength using the formula taught in calculus courses. However, the derivative of y has a singularity at x = 1. By switching to polar coordinates, we can find arclength in terms of an integrand with no singularities. We can also simplify things a little by computing the total arclength as 4 times the arclength in the first quadrant; this avoids having to take absolute values.

The following Python code computes the perimeter and the ratio of the area to the perimeter.

    from scipy import sin, cos, pi
    from scipy.integrate import quad
    from scipy.special import gamma
    
    def r(t, p):
        return (cos(t)**p + sin(t)**p)**-(1/p)
    
    def drdt(t, p):
        deriv = (cos(t)**p + sin(t)**p)**(-1-1/p)
        deriv *= cos(t)**(p-1)*sin(t) - sin(t)**(p-1)*cos(t)
        return deriv
    
    def integrand(t, p):
        return (drdt(t,p)**2 + r(t,p)**2)**0.5
    
    def arclength(p):
        integral = quad(lambda t: integrand(t,p), 0, pi/2)[0]
        return 4*integral
    
    def area(p):
        return 4*gamma(1 + 1/p)**2 / gamma(1 + 2/p)
    
    def ratio(p):
        return area(p) / arclength(p)

Basic geometry tells us the ratio is 1/2 when p = 2 and we have a circle. The ratio is also 1/2 when p = ∞, i.e. when we have a square. We can use the code above to find that the ratio when p = 0.528627, so there is at least one local maximum for values of p between 2 and ∞.

Here’s a plot of the ratio of area to perimeter as a function of p.

ratio of area to perimeter for squircle

The plot is quite flat for large values of p, but if we zoom in we can see that there is a local maximum near 4.4.

close up of previous graph near the maximum

When I find the maximum of the ratio function using Brent’s method (scipy.optimize.brent) I find p = 4.39365679, which agrees with the value Panholzer stated.

Here’s a plot of the squircle corresponding to this value of p.

squircle with largest area to perimeter ratio

Back to the isoparametric problem

Now why doesn’t this contradict the isoparametric problem? Area scales quadratically but perimeter scales linearly. If you don’t hold perimeter constant, you can find a larger ratio of area to volume by making the perimeter larger. And that’s what we’ve done. When p = 2, we have a unit circle, with area π and perimeter 2π. When p = 4.39365679 we have area 3.750961567 and permimeter 7.09566295. If we were to take a circle with the same perimeter, it would have area 4.00660097, larger than the squircle we started with.

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One thought on “Squircle perimeter and the isoparametric problem

  1. Hello John,
    in Italian, Dido’s problem is called “il problema isoperimetrico della regina Didone” and so I would have expected “isoperimetric” but maybe isoparametric is correct too…

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