Lynn Gamwell’s “Why the history of maths is also the history of art” featured in The Guardian’s Adventures in Numberland blog

Posted by on Dec 4, 2015 in Faculty Writings | No Comments

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Earlier this week, VCS faculty member Lynn Gamwell had an article on mathematics and art published on Alex Bellos’s maths blog in The Guardian. Titled “Why the history of maths is also the history of art,” the piece features Gamwell’s discussion of ten artworks from her new book Mathematics and Art: A Cultural History (Princeton University Press, 2015). In this introductory passage, she explains the genesis of the book:

When I was a graduate student in art history, I read many explanations of abstract art, but they were invariably inadequate and misleading. So after completing my PhD, I went on to learn the history of biology, physics, and astronomy, and to publish a book detailing how modern art is an expression of the scientific worldview.

Yet many artworks also express the mathematics and technology of their times. To research Math and Art I had to learn maths concepts like calculus, group theory and predicate logic. As a novice struggling to understand these ideas, I was struck with the poor quality and confusing content of illustrations in most educational books. So I vowed to create for my book a set of cogent math diagrams that are crystal-clear visualizations of the abstract concepts.

As a lecturer at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, I wrote this book for my students, such as Maria, who told me she was never good at history because she couldn’t remember dates, and for Jin Sug, who failed high school algebra because he couldn’t memorize formulae. I hope they will read this book and discover that history is a storybook and that math is about captivating ideas.

The remainder of the article presents Gamwell’s commentary on ten contemporary artworks that are based on a broad range of scientific and mathematical principles, concepts, formulae, and historical moments. The works range from Robert Bosch’s intricate print based on a solution to Karl Menger’s traveling salesman problem (shown below) to a piece by mathematicians Reza Sarhangi and Robert Fathauer inspired by the work of the tenth-century Islamic mathematician Abū al-Wafā’ Būzjānī. The full text is available at Adventures in Numberland.

Robert Bosch (American, b. 1963), Knot? 2006. Digital print, 34 × 34 in. (86.3 × 86.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist. [via The Guardian]

Robert Bosch (American, b. 1963), Knot? 2006. Digital print, 34 × 34 in. (86.3 × 86.3 cm). Courtesy of the artist. [via The Guardian]

Visual & Critical Studies