Mathematical Recreations; February 2000; Scientific American Magazine; by Stewart; 2 Page(s)
Mathematicians are convinced that their subject is beautiful, a belief many people find dubious. Grade school battles with arithmetic or algebra can be characterized in many ways, but "beautiful" does not readily spring to mind for most math students. Nevertheless, mathematics possesses beauty on many levels. The average person may find it hard to appreciate the logical elegance of a satisfying mathematical proof. But the beauty of geometric forms is very close to the aesthetics of the visual arts-especially sculpture-and is much more accessible to the nonmathematician.
I have discussed mathematically inspired sculptures before ("The Sculptures of Alan St. George," May 1996). The correspondence generated by that column revealed the existence of an astonishing variety of mathematical art; I could easily devote a year's worth of columns to the topic. In this column, I'm going to examine the connections between the mathematics of minimal surfaces and the exquisite wood-laminate sculptures made by artist Brent Collins of Gower, Mo. As you will see, the tale also poses some critical questions about the relation between real and virtual art. In the 1980s Collins was creating marvelous abstract sculptures without any conscious intention of giving them mathematical significance. Over time, though, he became aware that he was intuitively tending to minimize the surface area between the edges of his sculptures. In effect, he was reproducing some basic topological forms. In 1995 Collins joined forces with computer scientist Carlo H. Sequin of the University of California at Berkeley to explore the mathematical connections of his artworks. Their collaboration is described in detail in the journal Leonardo (Vol. 30, No. 2, 1997, pages 85-96).