Enumerating rigid sphere packings

Miranda C. Holmes-Cerfon

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Packing problems, which ask how to arrange a collection of objects in space to meet certain criteria, are important in a great many physical and biological systems, where geometrical arrangements at small scales control behavior at larger ones. In many systems there is no single, optimal packing that dominates, but rather one must understand the entire set of possible packings. As a step in this direction we enumerate rigid clusters of identical hard spheres for n ≤ 14 and clusters with the maximum number of contacts for n ≤ 19. A rigid cluster is one that cannot be continuously deformed while maintaining all contacts. This is a nonlinear notion that arises naturally because such clusters are the metastable states when the spheres interact with a short-range potential, as is the case in many nano- or microscale systems. We believe that our lists are nearly complete, except for a small number of highly singular clusters (linearly floppy but nonlinearly rigid). The data contains some major geometrical surprises, such as the prevalence of hypostatic clusters: those with less than the 3n - 6 contacts generically necessary for rigidity. We discuss these and several other unusual clusters whose geometries may give insight into physical mechanisms, pose mathematical and computational problems, or bring inspiration for designing new materials.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)229-244
Number of pages16
JournalSIAM Review
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2016


  • Clusters
  • Rigidity
  • Sphere packing
  • Statistical mechanics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Theoretical Computer Science
  • Computational Mathematics
  • Applied Mathematics


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