Can maths be beautiful?

Perfectly balanced: This equation has been exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Play word association with “mathematics”. You might use words like “confusing” or “challenging”. What about “beautiful”? Maths was exhibited in an art gallery recently. Is maths beautiful?

What’s happening

Is chalk scribbled on a blackboard art? That was the question put to visitors to The Met’s ‘Picturing Math’ exhibition. Ten equations were picked by mathematicians and put on display.

A study by Professor Semir Zeki found the same parts of a brain light up when an art enthusiast looks at art, as when a mathematician looks at an equation.

Find out more

Maryam Mirzakhani wanted to be a writer and loved reading when she was in primary school. Now, at 40-years-old, she is an award winning mathematician. She compares her work to the process of writing a novel though.

“There are different characters, and you are getting to know them better.” she says.

Mirzakhani thinks maths is beautiful, but that you can only appreciate its beauty if you patiently study the subject.

Other mathematicians would say you do not need to study to see the beauty in maths and point to the golden ratio. This is a special set of numbers that can be used to divide up a space. This guiding principle has been be found in many unusual places, from the pyramids in Egypt and the Parthenon in Athens to the painting of the Mona Lisa. So, is maths beautiful?

Some say…

“Of course!” say some. The things that make us gasp with awe — a beautiful poem, a beautiful view, a piece of art — so often they have a link to maths. The numerical connection can come through in the golden ratio, the rhythmic patterns in a sonnet or the geometric patterns in a pine cone. It would be very narrow-minded to say maths is not art.

Others think…

“What pretentious nonsense!” say others. Maths is no more beautiful than any other subject. To appreciate these equations you need to understand the basics. Even the basics are difficult to learn! Art should not need a road map for a visitor to see its beauty. Maths is an incredibly useful and interesting subject. But beautiful? Not so much.

You Decide

  1. Should equations be hung in art galleries?

Activities

  1. Print the golden ratio template on A4 paper. Now, draw a picture within the golden ratio, use it however you want. Then, draw another picture without using the golden ratio. Which do you think is more beautiful? Artis have more great ideas for bringing maths to life in your school.

Some People Say...

“Nature is written in mathematical language.”

Galileo Galilei

What do you think?

Word Watch

The Met
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is in New York City. It is the largest art museum in the United States.
Novel
A fictional — made up — story set in the real world, or told with some degree of realism.
Parthenon
A temple: some claim the proportions of the building reflect the golden ratio. Not everyone agrees this was deliberate, or even that it is true!
Geometric patterns
Kinds of patterns formed using shapes that are usually repeated.
Pretentious
Trying too hard to impress by pretending something (eg, a film, a book) is more important than it actually is.

Subjects

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