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Can math be beautiful? I think YES!

by Deborah Turnbull on 27 AUG 2009

I decided to leave math to the smart folks in year 11. 

I made sure I had enough credits to get into College, but then I happily surrendered myself to Computer Science 101/102 for my university science credits and settled into the art history, film, and media classes that would inform the next 4 years of my honours degree.  My class list was much the same for my masters degree, plus dissertation and internships.  You can imagine my surprise when I went along to hear my colleague, Matthew Connell's, talk at the Ultimo Science Festival (PHM) and understood it!  He is the Principle Curator in Maths and IT at the PHM, and where I am familiar with IT, I'm not so good on the maths.

Titled, From certainty to fallability: an epic tale from the history of mathmatics, I thought there would be a lot more math.  What myself and the well-populated audience were treated to was a social history about the men and women who were the major players in current (being the last 2000 years) mathmatical theory.  Matthew explained how Euclid's 5 hard and fast rules to do with math were not so hard and fast, that they applied to some aspects of our world, but not others, a concept that rocked the maths world in the late 19th-century.  He talked about maths as a language that you have to practise and stick with from a very young age, about the possibility of truth through contradiction and about how artist MC Escher took his designs from the latest geometrical trend in the late 19th-century (non-Euclidean geometry); and finally, when queried about math and religion, he talked about how 4 or 5 of the main logicians and mathmaticians in the history believed they were fulfilling God's work.

Though I was riveted, when Matthew began discussing maths modelling, I worried I might begin to zone out.  Fortunately, he started talking about crochet, a knitted craft I had recently tried to appropriate due to the the Hyperbolic Crochet groups that had been meeting at the museum over that last few months performing workshops for all who wanted to learn. Having knitted since childhood, I tried my hand at crocheting, which I needed my friend's visiting mum to start for me and which I'm not entirely sure I tied off properly.  It turns out that a Latvian mathmatician, Dr. Daina Taimina, discovered that crocheting was the ideal way to represent the concepts of hyperbolic geometry in model form.  It also turns out that when the principles of hyperbolic geometry are applied to crochet stitching, the recognizable shapes of corals, sea sponges, and other underwater creatures emerged. Needless to say, most of the maths community in 1997 were pleasantly surprised.

At the close of the talk, I asked about future focus and innovation for current high school students.  If math, specifically Turing's code-breaking theories and machines, could bring us computers, how could it be the enemy I always took it for? It turns out Matthew has been working with high school maths and art teachers to disrupt the current curriculum and make math more visual, more enjoyable, more tangible.  I, for one, am thrilled that teenagers 2 generations after me might actually enjoy math, not be shuffled into "adjusted" classes for those that aren't "math compatible".  Having ended up a curator in new media art, I deal with technology on a daily basis and often have to rely on technicians who speak the language of maths to support the tools my artists utilise to realise their work.

Though I have worked with Matthew for 2.5 years on the curatorial project Beta_space (a part of his prize winning Cyberworlds exhibition in the IT galleries of the museum) and read his thoughts on prototpying interactive artwork and its process, I had never heard him speak about maths and logic before.  It was eye-opening and left me with a desire to become fluid in the language my tools use.  After this talk, I felt more alive, more engaged, and like I had learned something new about an old onion.  Plus, I remembered basic geometry! Excellent!

Thank you Ultimo Science Festival!

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