Certain equations or concepts strike us as beautiful, stunning even. As she walked amongst the aquatints on the wall of Yale Art Gallery’s latest exhibit entitled “Concinnitas”, Jen Christiansen posed the title question of her blog post: “Math is Beautiful, But is it Art?”. Concinnitas means “an elegant or skillful joining of several things”, and its Latin origin made me think about the Latin origins of the word “art”. In Latin, “artem” refers to a practical skill (think “art of blacksmithing”), and also “artus”, meaning “to join” (for instance, joining disparate pieces of information or matter to form a coherent whole, like a sculpture, or a completed puzzle). We now also think of art as stemming from a spark of inspiration that calls the artist to create. In each of these manners, I see the creation of mathematics as an art. Jen Christiansen, the art director of information graphics at Scientific American, also leaned in this direction as she considered the exhibit which consists of responses from mathematicians and scientists to a question: “What is your most beautiful mathematics expression?” The responses came from venerable mathematicians and physicists: Michael Atiyah, Enrico Bombieri, Simon K. Donaldson, Freeman Dyson, Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Karp, Peter Lax, David Mumford, Stephen Smale and Steven Weinberg. You can see their “answers” online at the website of the Greg Kucera Gallery, which is also on the list of galleries exhibiting this portfolio of prints. The idea for the portfolio came from Bob Feldman of Parasol Press, and it was curated by Daniel Rockmore, a math professor at Dartmouth. My favorite was Simon Donaldson’s. Most recently, Donaldson won one of the inaugural Breakthrough Prizes in Mathematics, and his expression is Ampere’s Law. Ampere’s law, which expresses some of the ideas with which a Physics undergraduate might be familiar, implies some connections between topology and physics with the knotting of the “wire” through which “current” is flowing, and with the physical incarnation of the mathematical equation.
It should come as no surprise that certain individuals are working to make the connections between art and mathematics more apparent to the general population, as evidenced by the recently minted acronym S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Eduation, Art, and Mathematics). For example, in a recent interview (January 21st) of one the recent Fields medalists, Manjul Bhargava, at NDTV, Dr. Bhargava discusses connections between the Indian musical instrument Tabla and mathematics. He gives an example of the need of a musician to know all possible methods of partitioning eight beats into one- and two-beat sections. Dr. Bhargava uses this as one example of a way to teach mathematics in a more appealing manner that is less “robotic”. Another recent example of the intersection of mathematics and art in education is art teacher Ben Volta’s work with middle schoolers to create a giant mural inspired by the 1970’s video “Powers of Ten”.
However, this exhibit really turns the question away from finding intersections between math and art, away from how mathematics influences art or how art influences mathematics, and asks the more direct question of whether mathematicians are artists. What do you think?
Steven Strogatz tweeted a great discussion of what Concinnitas meant to Leon Battista Alberti, a 15th century architect. He used the term to refer to the use of “number”, “outline”, and “position” together to create a complete whole. The blog often discusses architecture and is called “The Torrible Zone” http://thetorriblezone.blogspot.com/2009/02/alberti-on-beauty-and-concinnitas.html