A pink taxi

A pink taxi

June 19, 2011

Are Mathematics Random?

Friends of mine came for dinner. Our conversation steered towards mathematics because one of them is an MIT graduate and I always enjoy their expert perspective on things. We discussed a Bernar Venet painting. Art and Mathematics.

Bernar Venet admits it himself: his mathematical axioms are abstract. He paints mathematics as an abstraction because we all agree that it a language like another. The way Kandinski painted music, or Middle Eastern artists paint calligraphy.

Just that day, on the field trip, a classmate of my son happened to sit next to me and spoke about how intimidating mathematics can sometimes be. Which one of us hasn't come upon a blackboard with dizzying mathematical terminology and not cringed? Bernar Venet admits it and so does the MIT graduate! I would add that I have felt the same with calligraphied Arabic language on the blackboard. If I look at it, without reading it, Arabic calligraphy can also be intimidating.

But I wanted to reassure the 7th grader. I explained that mathematics is more simple than he thought, if only he cleared his mind and took it a step at a time. That it also required very neat calculations and for that the essential sharp pencil, the scrap paper, the proper mathematical instruments.

Why is it that we study mathematics to such abstract levels? Indeed we apply it in everyday life, but most high school mathematics go beyond every day calculations. Mathematics like music is a state of mind. I listen to Mirwais' electro sounds, his re-mixes and I know that he is keeping count, that there is symmetry to the rythm, that the formulation of a beat requires algebraic logic.

For maths is a state of mind. Like yoga, it is a good exercise for your brain. Upon solving a mathematical problem, be it geometry or simple fractions, we have exercised areas of the brain, the way we isolate and exercise certain muscles in the weight room, or even more in the pilates studio. The brain flexes and works while calculating. It also requires the concentration and the focus that brings equilibrium to the state of mind, as the yoga focus brings equilibrium to the body.

For us, artists and laymen, the non-engineers who study mathematics and don't always apply it, mathematics are random! Look at Venet's sculptures, he picks arcs and gathers them in bouquets!