We all know that the Magic 8 Ball is so much more than a regular toy. It’s a staple for psychics and a must at gatherings these days. Theoretically, the Magic 8 Ball is mostly hollow from the inside – a simple container with murky-blue liquid and a floating die that tumbles to give you an answer every time you shake the Ball.
But do you know the shape of this floating, message-bearing die inside your Magic 8 Ball? The die is a twenty sided regular icosahedron – a geometric three dimensional polyhedron object with height, width and depth. It has twenty sides or surfaces, each one of these sides of the Magic 8 Ball die has a non-committal, affirmative or negative statement imprinted in raised letters. You can usually read the responses through a window at the bottom of the Ball.
An Icosahedron – the shape of the die
The die in a traditional Magic 8 Ball is also a twenty sided polyhedral or icosahedron with statements or responses imprinted on each its regular sides.
Icosahedrons have been an old favourite polyhedron of Mathematicians and Physicists throughout the years for its sheer simplicity.
The word icosahedron comes from the Ancient Greek (eíkosi) ‘twenty’ and from the Ancient Greek (hédra) ‘seat’ – quite literally, for its twenty sides or seats. The plural of an icosahedron can either be icosahedra or icosahedrons. Luckily enough, you won’t have to worry too much about this, since your traditional Magic 8 Ball only has one of these icosahedrons – hence an icosahedron die.
There are an infinite number of shapes of a geometric icosahedron, but the one used inside a Magic 8 Ball is a regular symmetrical (and convex) icosahedron. It is one of the five Platonic solids with the most faces – that is, 20 equilateral triangles with 30 edges and 12 vertices. A Platonic Solid is a convex regular polyhedron (made with regular solids) in a three-dimensional space. What makes a polyhedron regular is that all its faces are congruent – meaning identical in shape, size and angles – and the same five number of faces meet at each vertex.
The chart below gives a better visual of the polyhedral. The shape at the at the far-right end is the geometric shape used for your message-bearing die inside the Magic 8 Ball.
Dice can also have polyhedral or irregular shapes, with faces marked with anything from numbers to letters and even symbols, as in this twenty-sided die with faces inscribed with Greek letters from the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to historians, the numerous ones founds through from the Roman, Greek and Egyptian times are mostly associated with throws of the astragals (knucklebones), and this has led to suggestions they were used for games. Another remarkable example discovered in Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt in the 1980s records an Egyptian god’s name in Demotic (the Egyptian script of these late periods) on each face. Divination – seeking advice about the unknown from the supernatural – seems to be the most likely purpose for the Dakhleh die: the polyhedron might have been thrown in order to determine a god who might assist the practitioner.
Philosophical and Historical standing of an Icosahedron
If you’re a philosophy enthusiast, you will find it interesting to note that the Platonic solids, and in turn the icosahedron, were named after the Greek philosopher Plato, who hypothesized it in one of his infamous dialogues back in 360BC, in which he associated each of the four Classical elements (earth, water, air, fire) with a regular solid owing to their direct connect (and presence) in the universe. The Icosahedron is associated with the element Water, which symbolizes dreams, intuition, and emotions.
We wonder if this is why the shape floats around, almost naturally, in the blue-dye liquid?
How many die are in a Magic 8 Ball?
We dug up a bit more here – all the way back to 1946 to when Albert C. Carter invented the ingenious Ball then called the Syco-Seer: The Miracle Home Fortune Teller. He was inspired by his mother, who was a clairvoyant and the container-with-answers-from-the-other-world she used to predict and read the future and past. We discovered that the original Magic 8 Ball looked nothing like the one today and actually had two dice – with lone yes/no answers. The traditional Magic 8 Ball found in the markets today have one white, plastic die floating deep inside its core. With its twenty sides it can give you a maximum of twenty different responses to your life’s most burning questions. When you shake up your Magic 8 Ball to get an answer, the message-bearing die falls into one of the 10 affirmative answers, 5 non-committal answers, and 5 negative answers.
The Magic 8 Ball looks simple but has more depth to it that the eye can see. The message-bearing die is its most essential aspect – the one it cannot do without. Hence it has been thought out to have the maximum number of responses with its twenty-sided Icosahedron – a humble Mathematical marvel.
Reference 1: Mental Floss “A Brief History of the Magic 8 Ball”
Reference 2: Britannica “Twenty-sided die (icosahedron) with faces inscribed with Greek letters”
Reference 3: Britannica “Die”
Reference 4: From Abba to Zoom: A Pop Culture Encyclopedia of the Late 20th Century By David Mansour
Reference 5 – Britannica “Platonic Solids”
Figure 1. The five types of Platonic Solids – Icosahedron is the one at the left end.