Mathematics and Burning Man

This morning when I came in to the JMM I ran into a friend, who promptly said hello to Satyan Devadoss and made him drop all of his papers. He was delightful about the encounter as we helped him pick up everything.  He was even more delightful a few hours later in the first MAA Contributed Paper Session on Mathematics and the Arts, when he and coauthor Diane Hoffoss presented their “Unfolding Humanity” project.

The $45,000, 6500 person-hour project was based on an idea from three University of San Diego undergraduates who had taken Devadoss’s fall 2018 geometry course. As Devadoss put it,

The nerdiness for all this comes for us as how do we build a large-scale sculpture based on unsolved mathematics?

One assignment was to come up with an idea for a Burning Man project which:

  1. Was interactive for participants (since Burning Man is at its core an interactive arts festival of 70,000 some people in a 7-square mile area in the Nevada desert)
  2. Addressed an unsolved question in geometry
  3. Was designed around the 2018 Burning Man theme “I Robot”

The three students Jordan Abushlala, Nick Bail, and Eugene Wackerbarth came up with the idea for the giant dodecahedron which explored an unsolved problem in unfolding geometry, an unsolved problem on the shape of the universe, and the unsolvable problem of technology and what it means to be human.

With funding from individual donors, USD, and a San Diego arts collaboration (which gives out $15,000 each year and gave $10,000 of that to the project last year),  around 80 volunteers got together at the San Diego CoLab over the course of weeks to build something that “was strong enough to survive [the desert] and  not be a death trap”.

The math: based on Albrecht Durer’s unsolved problem: can you cut and unfold a convex polyhedra along its edges so it doesn’t overlap itself when you lay it flat?

The art: They built a dodecahedron based on the Poincare dodecahedral model of the universe . You could walk in and it unfolded.  There were awesome LEDs on it, these little hand-painted tiles:


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