Artists may hold the formula for a renaissance in maths

Art is 'profoundly similar' to mathematics and can help revive it, paper argues. Hannah Fearn writes

July 23, 2009

One requires a calculator and a logical mind, the other a canvas, easel and artistic temperament.

Yet despite their superficial differences, an academic has said that painting and mathematics are very similar disciplines, and that it is as rewarding to spend time with the musings of Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler as it is with Picasso's masterpieces.

Henrik Jensen, professor of mathematical physics at Imperial College London, makes the case in a paper that was presented at a conference in Athens earlier this month.

In "Mathematics is painting without a brush", he says the Western world is facing a quandary as it becomes increasingly reliant on maths in areas such as commerce, technology, engineering and science, even as the number of people studying the subject declines.

Professor Jensen argues that although they may seem fundamentally different, mathematics and art are in fact "profoundly similar" - and that this could be a key to reversing the divergence in supply and demand.

"The similarity goes far beyond immediate relationships such as the fact that geometry plays a significant role in both disciplines," Professor Jensen says.

"Both painting and mathematics struggle to express, by abstraction, the general behind the specific, and to establish the essential and relevant."

The paper goes on to suggest that helping people to understand these similarities would encourage them to engage with the subject.

"We will be able to demonstrate that mathematics is one of the most exciting intellectual activities humans can participate in," it says. "We want to make our pupils and students realise that it is as rewarding to learn from spending time together with Euler's thoughts as it is to be exposed to Picasso's paintings.

"Mathematics will then not be considered a unique or alien discipline, but can be approached with playfulness and experimentation along the traditions used in the teaching of art, where rigour and exploration goes hand in hand."

Chris Budd, professor of applied mathematics at the University of Bath, agreed that there was a fundamental connection between the two disciplines.

Professor Budd runs courses in schools linking maths to art, dance and even magic.

"I talk about mathematics and Celtic art, which is quite geometrical in the ways it is done and it's also based on rules," he said.

"Once you understand the rules and formulate them mathematically, then by using the maths you can create wonderful art of your own. There is the lovely link between the artwork and the mathematics."

He added: "It's not dumbing down, it's dumbing up. It's showing the creative side of maths, which is an extraordinarily creative subject."

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