Top-ology: A Torque About Tops

Kenneth Brecher
Proceedings of Bridges 2014: Mathematics, Music, Art, Architecture, Culture (2014)
Pages 51–58 Regular Papers


Spinning tops have been part of human civilization for at least three millennia. They have intrigued and mystified artists and artisans as well as mathematicians and physicists. Besides rotating about an axis, tops can precess and nutate, as well as shake, rattle and roll. Perhaps this is why children have included tops in so much of their play. And some of the greatest physicists of all times have turned their attention to them, including Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein. This paper presents a brief overview of the history of tops, their designs, and their incorporation into paintings, sculpture, literature, film and music. It also looks at some of their applications in fields as diverse as navigation and neuroscience. It concludes with the introduction of a new type of top that combines both spin and wobble into a kind of motion that might appropriately be called “spobbling”.