A tiling or tessellation of a flat surface is the covering of a plane using one or more geometric shapes, called tiles, with no overlaps and no gaps. In mathematics, tessellations can be generalized to higher dimensions and a variety of geometries.
A real physical tessellation is a tiling made of materials such as cemented ceramic squares or hexagons. Such tilings may be decorative patterns, or may have functions such as providing durable and water-resistant pavement, floor or wall coverings. Historically, tessellations were used in Ancient Rome and in Islamic art such as in the decorative geometric tiling of the Alhambra palace. In the twentieth century, the work of M. C. Escher often made use of tessellations, both in ordinary Euclidean geometry and in hyperbolic geometry, for artistic effect. Tessellations are sometimes employed for decorative effect in quilting. Tessellations form a class of patterns in nature, for example in the arrays of hexagonal cells found in honeycombs.
Some two hundred years later in 1891, the Russian crystallographer Yevgraf Fyodorov proved that every periodic tiling of the plane features one of seventeen different groups of isometries. Fyodorov's work marked the unofficial beginning of the mathematical study of tessellations. Other prominent contributors include Aleksei Shubnikov and Nikolai Belov (1964), and Heinrich Heesch and Otto Kienzle (1963).
Many other types of tessellation are possible under different constraints. For example, there are eight types of semi-regular tessellation, made with more than one kind of regular polygon but still having the same arrangement of polygons at every corner. Irregular tessellations can also be made from other shapes such as pentagons, polyominoes and in fact almost any kind of geometric shape. The artist M. C. Escher is famous for making tessellations with irregular interlocking tiles, shaped like animals and other natural objects. If suitable contrasting colours are chosen for the tiles of differing shape, striking patterns are formed, and these can be used to decorate physical surfaces such as church floors.
The sides of the polygons are not necessarily identical to the edges of the tiles. An edge-to-edge tiling is any polygonal tessellation where adjacent tiles only share one full side, i.e., no tile shares a partial side or more than one side with any other tile. In an edge-to-edge tiling, the sides of the polygons and the edges of the tiles are the same. The familiar "brick wall" tiling is not edge-to-edge because the long side of each rectangular brick is shared with two bordering bricks.
Penrose tilings, which use two different quadrilateral prototiles, are the best known example of tiles that forcibly create non-periodic patterns. They belong to a general class of aperiodic tilings, which use tiles that cannot tessellate periodically. The recursive process of substitution tiling is a method of generating aperiodic tilings. One class that can be generated in this way is the rep-tiles; these tilings have surprising self-replicating properties. Pinwheel tilings are non-periodic, using a rep-tile construction; the tiles appear in infinitely many orientations. It might be thought that a non-periodic pattern would be entirely without symmetry, but this is not so. Aperiodic tilings, while lacking in translational symmetry, do have symmetries of other types, by infinite repetition of any bounded patch of the tiling and in certain finite groups of rotations or reflections of those patches. A substitution rule, such as can be used to generate some Penrose patterns using assemblies of tiles called rhombs, illustrates scaling symmetry. A Fibonacci word can be used to build an aperiodic tiling, and to study quasicrystals, which are structures with aperiodic order.
Tessellation can be extended to three dimensions. Certain polyhedra can be stacked in a regular crystal pattern to fill (or tile) three-dimensional space, including the cube (the only Platonic polyhedron to do so), the rhombic dodecahedron, the truncated octahedron, and triangular, quadrilateral, and hexagonal prisms, among others. Any polyhedron that fits this criterion is known as a plesiohedron, and may possess between 4 and 38 faces. Naturally occurring rhombic dodecahedra are found as crystals of andradite (a kind of garnet) and fluorite.
Many patterns in nature are formed by cracks in sheets of materials. These patterns can be described by Gilbert tessellations, also known as random crack networks. The Gilbert tessellation is a mathematical model for the formation of mudcracks, needle-like crystals, and similar structures. The model, named after Edgar Gilbert, allows cracks to form starting from randomly scattered over the plane; each crack propagates in two opposite directions along a line through the initiation point, its slope chosen at random, creating a tessellation of irregular convex polygons. Basaltic lava flows often display columnar jointing as a result of contraction forces causing cracks as the lava cools. The extensive crack networks that develop often produce hexagonal columns of lava. One example of such an array of columns is the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. Tessellated pavement, a characteristic example of which is found at Eaglehawk Neck on the Tasman Peninsula of Tasmania, is a rare sedimentary rock formation where the rock has fractured into rectangular blocks.