Arts & Culture

STEAM lecture examines connection between math, arts

Lecturer recommends that students incorporate visual arts in study of math and science

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, March 7, 2014

When people picture a “rhombic dodecahedron,” they might see a 12-faced geometric object, or maybe multiple long, mathematical-sounding words strung together. George Hart sees a sculpture.

Hart, a research professor at Stony Brook University, works as a freelance mathematical sculptor and designer. His goal, he said in a lecture Wednesday in Barus and Holley 168, is to use art to make mathematical concepts accessible to everyone.

Brown STEAM, a student group that works to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences, invited Hart to speak because of the prevailing stereotype  “that math and applied-math people can’t think visually,” said STEAM Project Leader Lukas Winklerprins ’15. “Hart is a good person who can do that and who will push people to think visually.”

Hart said he has been representing mathematical principles through sculpture his entire life. Though his creations began as toothpicks glued together, they have grown in size, scale and complexity over the years.

True to the tune of making mathematical art accessible to a universal audience, Hart commenced his lecture by inviting attendees to examine and handle nylon mathematical model sculptures, created with the help of a 3-D printer.

Hart then gave an overview of his typical works — pieces that range from a few inches to several feet in diameter and that vary in material from pencils to cardboard to aluminum. According to his website, his research and sculptures focus on “novel polyhedral structures” — three-dimensional solids that have flat faces and straight edges.

The artist chooses concepts based on whether he finds an established mathematical idea to be visually appealing. “If I think it’s really worthy of existing, then it’s my job to make it exist,” he said. “Otherwise no one else will ever see it in the same way.”

Hart has extended the scope of his passion for synthesizing math with the creative arts. He co-founded the National Museum of Mathematics in New York, a museum dedicated to displaying mathematical concepts for easy public consumption. He also creates YouTube videos in which he explains mathematical concepts using everyday objects. In the video “Mathematically Correct Breakfast,” Hart discusses how to cut a bagel so that it forms two continuous linked halves.

Hart’s sculptures will not magically clarify terms like hyperbolic tessellation. But everyone can take something away from his pieces regardless of mathematical background, he said. “There’s no cut-off level,” he added. “I try to make things everyone can appreciate at some level.”

Still, fluency with the complex ideas behind such artwork can help viewers understand Hart’s pieces. “The more math you know, the deeper you can see into a subject,” he said.

Hart also holds workshops called “sculpture barn raisings.” Participants in his lectures or others intrigued by the intersection of math and art can provide hands-on help in the construction of one of his pieces, using pre-prepared materials that Hart brings to these workshops. He held one such creative session Thursday to construct a sculpture that will be installed in Barus and Holley in the coming weeks.

The Division of Applied Mathematics plans on reaching out to lecturers like Hart because “bringing artists and scientists to Brown who bridge the gap between math and the creative arts is a great way to show that these fields have much in common,” Bjorn Sandstede, professor of applied mathematics and chair of the division, wrote in an email to The Herald.

“As demonstrated by George Hart, geometric structures and patterns, for instance, are a natural link between the arts and math,” Sandstede wrote. “Showcasing this link is a powerful reminder that even seemingly disjoint(ed) fields often share deep and exciting connections.”

An increasing number of universities are emphasizing visual thinking within science and technology fields, Hart said. “Just the ways of approaching a problem that artists have often looks at a broader set of possibilities than in a math class,” he said. “More and more people are realizing that, to really use your math or technology or engineering knowledge, you really have to be creative.”