Have you ever admired how the slats of a hardwood floor fit together so cleanly, or how the hexagons underneath your bathroom rug perfectly meet up? These are examples of geometric tilings, arrangements of shapes that fit snugly together while filling up space. Two-dimensional tilings are admired all around the world, both for their beauty — as seen in the artistry of mosaics in cathedrals and mosques around the world — and for their utility, in walls and floors everywhere.

In math, tilings are often appreciated for their regular patterns. But mathematicians also find beauty in irregularity. It’s this kind of beauty that a retired print technician was seeking when he recently discovered the first “aperiodic monotile”— a single tile that fills up the plane in a non-repeating pattern. To get a handle on this big discovery, let’s start by thinking about a simpler problem: how to tile a line.

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