Mathematicians and the arts


Jason Brown is a both a mathematician and a blues guitarist. I introduced him at a public lecture at Ryerson University as “…the hardest working man in mathematical music” (with all due respect to James Brown!).  Brown wrote a popular mathematics book Our Days are Numbered, which featured his work on the prevalence and influence of mathematics in our daily lives and in our music. An especially engaging section of the book describes Brown deciphering the mystery of the opening chord of the Beatle’s A Hard Day’s Night using Fourier transforms.


Erik Demaine is a gifted computer scientist and mathematician based at M.I.T. and an artist whose work is on display at MOMA.  Demaine’s groundbreaking work on computational geometry, algorithms, and games is widely cited and he is in high demand as a speaker. I am especially fond of his work on origami and its applications to self-folding machines. Real-life transformers, anyone?


Manil Suri is a professor at University of Maryland specializing in numerical analysis. He is also an internationally acclaimed, best-selling author who has written a trilogy of novels. His first novel, The Death of Vishnu, was long-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize.

There are many present and historical mathematicians like Brown, Demaine, and Suri. But are they mathematicians or artists? How about both. For me the line between the arts and mathematics is slight, if not imaginary. That is not to dismiss mathematics as a science, and to recognize that mathematics is the most accurate language we possess for capturing many phenomena in nature. Perhaps the best way to think about it is that mathematics is neither an art or a science, but both and neither. As we know from topology, a set can be open, closed, open and closed, or neither!


The towering 19th century mathematician David Hilbert was fabled to say that he was happy to hear one of his students dropped out to write poetry, as he did not have enough imagination to be a mathematician.  These are harsh words, but they do speak directly to the intensely creative nature of mathematics.


I watched for a second time the Theory of Everything the other night, the marvelous biopic on Stephen Hawking. I first saw the film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014, and I will never forget the sustained ovation Eddie Redymane (who played Hawking) received at the end of the movie. I recently learned that Hawking has co-written children’s books with his daughter Lucy. How inspiring is that?

Anthony Bonato

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