Real life uses for ellipses

Written by matt scheer
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Real life uses for ellipses
The metal pieces of this cover include elliptical strips welded together. (Hemera Technologies/ Images)

An ellipse is a shape that is formed when a cylinder is cut at an angle. If you tilt a glass of water so that the surface is no longer horizontal, the resulting shape of the water is an ellipse. Ellipses can also be seen when a hula hoop or tire of a car is turned askew. Though these are real life examples of optical ellipses, the ellipse also has uses in real life.

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Foods are cut to form ellipses. The shape offers a refined touch to simple foods. Cutting a carrot, cucumber or sausage at an angle to its main axis results in an elliptical slice. Wraps, tortillas wrapped around a filling such as chicken salad, are often cut into two elliptical wedges. The sharp focus of the ellipse gives an everyday food a more elegant look.

Whispering Gallery

An ellipse has the property that if light or a sound wave emanates from one focus it will be reflected to the other focus. A focus is an essential point within the ellipse that the points of the ellipse are related to. This property is used to create whispering galleries, which are structures that allow someone who is whispering in one area to be heard clearly by someone in another area but not by anyone else. Famous examples of whispering galleries include the United States Statuary Capitol Hall and London's St. Paul's Cathedral.


Lithotripsy is a method for destroying a kidney stone. The patient lies in an elliptical tub. The kidney stone is aligned to one of the focii of the ellipse. Shockwaves emanating from the other focus concentrate on the kidney stone, destroying it. The debris is as small as sand and can pass through the body without discomfort. In this treatment, no surgery is needed.

Elliptical Trainers

An elliptical training machine simulates the motion of running or climbing to provide the user with a healthful exercise without any impact on the joints. The foot of a user describes the shape of an ellipse as the machine is used. An elliptical machine can be motor-driven or user-driven, as well as dual action, where handlebars and leg mounts interdependently provide motion for each other. The elliptical trainer provides a stationary exercise for those who wish to avoid joint injury as a result of running.

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