Theorems as Decoration

An article in this week’s Science News describes mathematical decorations known as sangakus—visual representations of geometric proofs that appear in Japanese temples. The article shows a sample theorem, but I find particularly striking is the use of mathematical representations for their aesthetic impact—presumably both visual and intellectual.

Tony Rothman presents several high-resolution images of sangaku on his web page, and he has also coauthored the forthcoming Sacred Mathematics with Hidetoshi Fukagawa. With any luck, that volume will shed additional light on the topic and offer a much more complete perspective on the intersection of mathematics and aesthetics in a seemingly unusual venue.

(Rothman, BTW, has authored several books: including The provocative Doubt and Certainty, which looks at epistemological questions in science from both Eastern and Western perspectives, and
the more light-hearted Everything’s Relative: And Other Fables from Science and Technology, which presents a laundry-list of oddities from the history of science. At least, those are two of his that happen to grace my shelves.)

Photocopier Art

An article in today’s Science Times (n.b. that you’ll have to pay to see it if you look after 17 October) describes Thomas Eisner’s use of a color photocopier to create compositions based in his admiration of natural forms.

The image above appears in conjunction with the Science Times piece, even though it dates to an era before Eisner began using the photocopier as a means of expression. Instead, it represents an innovation in preserving specimens and then using a scanning electron microscope to create aesthetically interesting and highly informative images of the microscopic world. Eisner published an entire book’s worth of similar images (albeit mostly in color), although in fact he’s known in scientific circles for his seminal work in chemical ecology.

Physically disabled by the onset of Parkinson’s disease, Eisner has started using photocopiers for artistic expression, now interpreting the natural world in a more subjective way. He claims that a color copier “can serve for the inventive generation of imagery, for composition of novel pictorial arrangements, and in that capacity find use in the expression of fantasy.”

Eisner’s statements speak to the deeply aesthetic motivation that underlies many scientists’ work. The orientation toward imagery occurs particularly in astronomy and biology, it seems, but the underlying intellectual aesthetic pervades most disciplines. (Cf. the new collection of Carl Sagan’s “Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology” to be released next month.