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Problem 32: Bar-Magnet Polyhedra


Which polyhedra are bar-magnet polyhedra? For reasons detailed below, the problem can be phrased as asking which 3-connected planar graphs may have their edges directed so that the directions “alternate” around each vertex.

Let P be a polyhedron with a set of edges E. For an edge e \in E, define a bar magnet as a mapping of e to either (N,S) or (S,N), which assigns the endpoints of e opposite poles of a magnet (and corresponds to directing the edge). Call a vertex v of P to be alternating under mappings of its edges to bar magnets if the incident edges assigns alternating magnetic poles to v in the cyclic order of those edges on the surface around v: (N,S,N,S,...). Thus if deg(v) is even, the poles alternate, and if deg(v) is odd, at most two like poles are adjacent in the circular sequence. Finally, call a polyhedron a bar-magnet polyhedron if there is a bar-magnet assignment of each of its edges so that each of its vertices is alternating.


Joseph O’Rourke, 2001. This problem is inspired by the toy “Roger’s Connection,” which provides bar magnets and steel balls to construct polyhedra. The structures are most stable when each vertex is alternating.


Settled by Bojan Mohar, Apr. 2004.

Partial and Related Results

At the presentation of the problem, Therese Biedl proved that the polyhedron formed by gluing together two tetrahedra with congruent bases is not a bar-magnet polyhedron: alternation at the three degree-4 vertices of the common base forces some other edge to be directed both ways. Thus not all polyhedra are bar-magnet polyhedra. Erik Demaine proved that a polyhedron all of whose vertices have even degree is a bar-magnet polyhedron: the graph has a face 2-coloring, and the edges of the faces of color 1 can oriented counterclockwise, which then orients each face of color 2 clockwise. He also observed that if every vertex is of degree 3, Petersen’s theorem yields a perfect matching that establishes such “simple” polyhedra are bar-magnet polyhedra.

A clean characterization was provided by Bojan Mohar, who proved [Moh04]:

Theorem 1. Let G be a planar graph embedded on the surface of a sphere. Define a new graph R whose nodes are the vertices of odd degree in G, with two nodes of R adjacent if they are cofacial in G (lie on a common facial walk). Then G has an NS-orientation (i.e., is a bar-magnet polyhedral skeleton) if and only if R has a perfect matching.

A facial walk is a closed walk along the boundary of a face.


Posed by J. O’Rourke at the CCCG 2001 open-problem session [DO02].


polyhedra; planar graphs

Entry Revision History

J. O’Rourke, 29 Aug. 2001; 11 Oct. 2001; E. Demaine, 31 Aug. 2002; J. O’Rourke, 14 Aug. 2004; 20 Sep. 2004.



Erik D. Demaine and Joseph O’Rourke. Open problems from CCCG 2001. In Proceedings of the 14th Canadian Conference on Computational Geometry, August 2002.


Bojan Mohar. Bar-magnet polyhedra and NS-orientations of maps. Manuscript, University of Ljubljana, September 2004.