Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Museum Dreams: Mystical Math Manifestations

I've been spending a lot of time mildly awed by the natural world recently. Maybe it's living in the middle of a city that makes seeing the egret in the Palace lagoon every morning such a strange, dreamy experience: I walk out into the hard gray lines of the street and get out of the harsh glare of the bus and whoa, there's this dainty, gleaming creature in the dawn, feathers so mistily white that it looks out of focus even when it's right in front of me. Or perhaps it's being surrounded by all the strict geometry of an urban environment that makes me all swoony about naturally-occurring mathematical manifestations. Either way, I've been unusually struck by the mystical face of geometry in the last few days, and I started wandering around Wikimedia Commons looking for examples. The images I found were so startling and wonderful I couldn't help imagining exhibits arising from them - a delightful entanglement of art, math, science, and natural history. Here are a few of my favorites.

citrus cathedral

Photo: Scott Bauer, USDA [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Stained glass windows got nothin' on these gorgeous illuminated citrus slices. I'm mildly in love with the idea of a chapel-like space that builds on this concept, possibly in a few different ways. Imagine windows made in the shape of thin-sliced lemons - not cartoonish, goofy, swizzle-stick-topper lemons, but the true and intricate shape complexity of the fruit, the "acid, secret symmetry" Neruda describes in "Ode to the Lemon." Glass in droplets and clusters, a "cool architecture" (Neruda again), a stained glass window in the long bright strands of the blood orange! Imagine morning sunlight coming through the pink heart of a glass grapefruit, an ineffable pale green through the tender star of a lime!

dehydrated lemons and limes
Photo: vigilant20 on Flickr.
Or why not use dehydrated fruit? Take it one step further and build a fragile house out of steel rods and pins and thousands of thin citrus slices, dehydrated and dipped in some glassy preservative? They get a little darker when preserved, more like that rich, solemn sunlight you see coming down through cathedrals, that almost-solid golden light alive with twinkling motes of dust. When dehydrated, citrus fruits look like glass already. I'd build a chapel-shaped room out of nothing else, and set it where the sun will move across it. Imagine the scent: orange peel and Kefir lime! What could be more holy than standing in the heart of a lemon?

"Yellow goblet/of miracles," says Neruda, "a fragrant nipple/of the earth's breast..."

spiderweb footbridge

Photo: Brocken Inaglory [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ]
via Wikimedia Commons

I'd like to see a series of hanging bridges modeled on a spiderweb. A veritable maze of silvery, thread-like bridges, springy and laden with refractive droplets, radiating in all directions -- up, down, sideways, a garden of bright and forking paths, all leading to one captivating, shimmering center from which it ought to be...difficult...to extricate yourself. No spider in the middle, I don't think -- perhaps the obstacle to leaving would be in finding yourself in a space so full of light and air that you simply struggle spiritually to drag yourself away.
 diaphanous forest

Photo: Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak (Own work)
[CC-BY-SA-2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

It's hard to fully appreciate the radiant and radial symmetry of a dandelion when it's small and easy to blow away -- they're beautifully made objects, really, dandelions, and I think making one large enough that the fluff dwarfs us might provide a more properly reverent experience. I like the idea of being surrounded by the slender trunks and starry branches, and if I could have it any way I like, the occasional gust of wind would billow through and blow them all away. And then they'd reappear, slowly, like stars coming out, or streetlamps coming on in a dense fog one by one.

fractal feast

Photo: Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Something has got to be done with the Romanesco broccoli, also know as "that fucking freaky fractal vegetable." It's not a true fractal because the self-similar pattern terminates when you get down to the individual flowers, but holy god, it's real and you can eat it. MATH, son.

Photo: Ian Alexander [CC-BY-SA-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

Also, for some reason I had never realized this about cabbage. Look at that amazing spiral! How freakin' gorgeous is that? Or check out these beets:

photo: Rae Maltz

Vegetables are amazing. If I was going to curate an exhibition about amazing art based on mathematical patterns in nature, there would certainly be an accompanying feast. But then that's probably because I just really like eating. (Mold on cheese looks pretty astonishing at a high enough magnification...rather like tiny trees, or dandelion fluff! I can get away with that, right?)

snowflake (something)

Photo: Thomas Bresson [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I don't know what I would do with snowflakes, but it would have to be something, because they kind of break my brain. Millions of tiny perfect ice crystals just falling out of the sky. The first time I saw an actual six-pointed snowflake on my sleeve I was dumbfounded. I mean I was completely flabbergasted. Wait, you mean they actually look like the paper cutouts I made in school when I was eight? Shut the front door! (Bear in mind that I grew up in that well-known blizzard zone, the San Francisco Bay Area.)

seashell staircase

Photo: H. Zell (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

I'd like to build a staircase that looks like this on the outside and houses a spiral staircase following the path of the shell within, nacreous luminance and all. Where would it lead, I wonder?

Do you have favorite manifestations of mathematics in nature that you can imagine turning into a place, space, exhibit, or event? Please share!


  1. Nature is amazing!
    I wish I had time for a longer comment.

  2. Are you familiar with Vi Hart's Doodling in Math Class series? It's so great!

    This post reminds me of it because she talks about the fibonacci series that the broccoli above follows, and plant spirals in general.

    Highly entertaining if you're interested:
    1) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahXIMUkSXX0&feature=youtu.be
    (talks about fibonacci series in general and how it applies to plants)
    2) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ahXIMUkSXX0&list=UUOGeU-1Fig3rrDjhm9Zs_wg&index=27&feature=plcp
    (talks about why plants follow the series)

    They're about 3-5 minutes each and HIGHLY diverting. I showed them to my daughter and she was riveted while I was simultaneously riveted.


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