Where does Math Belong on the Art-Science Continuum?

  • BLOG
  • August 7th, 2019

A typical Engineering school curriculum begins with a healthy dose of mathematics. Covering the entire spectrum of deterministic and probabilistic courses – from probability & statistics to single variable and multivariable calculus – the act of building an engineer relies heavily on math.

Now consider an Art curriculum, and you see that the content naturally takes on less explicit mathematical forms – design, typography, the confluence of art & ideas, contemporary and popular culture, and so on.

The structure of these curricula and the design of their content emphasize mathematics as the base to science but under-weight the connection and importance of math to art. Today’s media and societal mindsets with respect to science further strengthen this perception.

But where should Mathematics actually be placed on the art and science continuum?

Before we answer that question, let’s appreciate the individuality of each pole on the continuum.

A classic example of art is Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” or Michelangelo’s “David”. A more classical form of art is “Strictly Personal” by Dave DiMartino. From silent music to invisible exhibitions, art has the power to make ‘less seem more,’ and the ‘void appear full’.

Similarly, science can include stormy physics or generous chemistry or behavioral biology. There are also the lines of nuclear magnetic resonance, planetary geology, rheology and sociology. And, the list keeps expanding every 2 years.

Despite what seems like vast differences, both domains surprisingly share a lot of common ground such as creativity and inspiration, visualization and beauty, discipline and dedication. So what happens when we blend the creative bent of an artist with the analytic rigor of an engineer? The answer to that question allows us to begin to appreciate what Mathematics means. We begin to see how it is a unique stream directed towards intellectual elegance and the beauty of ideas.

Islamic geometry is an apt example of this math-based relationship between science and art – picking up small geometric shapes and scientifically placing them above each other to create layers of art. The computer-generated landscapes, tessellations, and anamorphic art are a few more examples along the same lines. Multiple studies have also shown that medieval Islamic art applied mathematical principles that were uncovered centuries later. For instance, what scientists term today as ‘quasicrystalline geometry’ was inscribed in the Darb-i Imam shrine, Iran, in the 14th century.

The confluence of art and science through math has added a lot of incremental value historically, which we see in contemporary culture today. Every time proponents have brought the two disciplines together, the world has witnessed a disruptive formation. So what needs to be done to derive maximum benefit from this relationship?

First we need to change our conversations, and mindset. We need to include softer aspects of mathematics as subjects in art curricula. We need conventional culture to stop speaking of mathematicians as geeks alone, but as geeks and artists. We need to start believing that math, like art, starts with a vision and manifests into reality through the right technique, like science. Paul Lockhart put it rightly when he said, “Mathematics is the purest of the arts, as well as the most misunderstood.’