Tag Archives: Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science

A math musical in Vancouver (BC, Canada) and a math workshop for poets at Banff (Alberta, Canada)

Mathematicians in Canada must be the wildest group of scientists we’ve got or perhaps they’re just the most creative of the lot. How else can you explain a math musical, Math Out Loud, which premiered Dec. 14, 2011 in Vancouver, and a workshop titled, Mathematics: Muse, Maker, and Measure of the Arts, held at the Banff International Research Station (BIRS) from Dec. 4 – 9, 2011).

I found out about the math musical in a Jan. 5, 2012 community newspaper article by Martha Perkins (for the WestEnder),

When Mackenzie Gray talks about the way Paul McCartney used a recursive sequence to make the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” seem to last forever, you realize that part of the Beatles’ phenomenal success might have sprung from McCartney’s genius as a mathematician.

When Roger Kemp draws on a napkin to illustrate that you just have to change the way you think about numbers to come up with a binary code for pi (as in 3.14 ad infinitum), you get a sense that math can actually be a lot of fun.

Here’s a little more information about the play from a Dec. 14, 2011 news release,

Math Out Loud is a major theatrical production that uses comedy, dance and music to make math approachable. Our goal is to reintroduce math to students in a new, creative light and hopefully re-open a door some may have considered closed.” [said Mackenzie Gray]

Highly-visible and well-recognized Vancouver television and film actor Mackenzie Gray (Superman: Man of Steel; Smallville; The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) directed and wrote the script and songs. Academy Award-winning producer Dale Hartleben (The Man Who Skied Down Everest; 1976) produced the play. Acclaimed choreographer and Royal Winnipeg Ballet alumnus Joel Sturrock created the Broadway style dance numbers. Composer Joe Docherty arranged and recorded the music. A team of eight actors brings the production to life.

Math Out Loud tells the story of high school students Damon and Kelly as they share an adventure through a mathematical time-travelling dream full of colourful characters and conflicts that highlight the relevance of mathematics in a student’s busy modern life. Characters such as Christopher Columbus, Greek mathematician Eratosthenes and Cleopatra demonstrate mathematical principals tied to modern pop culture references. …

“If someone had told me three months ago a play could spark my interest in studying math, I wouldn’t have believed them,” said Sayer Roberts, one of the actors on stage with Math Out Loud. “I nearly failed math when I was in school. If math and science had been approached in a fun, unusual and creative way when I was in school, I’m pretty sure I’d have a different outlook on those subjects today.” [emphasis mine]

Yes, I heartily agree with Roberts’ sentiment. It’s amazing how many people shut down when they hear the word ‘science’ and it is, as he notes, all about how it’s introduced and taught. Bravo to the mathematicians for trying to turn that around.

The other project I mentioned, Mathematics: Muse, Maker, and Measure of the Arts, was profiled in a Dec. 16, 2011 post by Nassif Ghoussoub of Piece of Mind,

“Thank you so much for this opportunity for a non-mathematician to be part of the BIRS community”, wrote Alice Major. It doesn’t happen often that an illiterate mathematician gets an email from a Poet Laureate. Major was writing about her experience at last week’s workshop at BIRS (The Banff International Research Station). Entitled, “Mathematics: Muse, Maker, and Measure of the Arts”, the workshop was a BIRS classic. Her email made me feel even worse about not being there, and not only because I missed the likes of Ingrid Daubechies, David Mumford, and Robert Moody, who were merely the math. reps. for that event. Artists, musicians, poets, physicists and engineers were also there and they are now writing about it.

Artistic beauty and mathematical complexity have a history of interaction for as long as civilization itself: The golden ratio and the pyramids, Alhambra’s tessellations and the Penrose tiling, of course Da Vinci, Dali, Esher, and various minimalist and abstract schools of art, which had their roots in mathematics. But the workshop was about a totally different matter. It was about modern science and the future of such interactions.

Take for example, Stylometry analysis of literary style, which was initiated by the English logician, Augustus de Morgan, in the mid 1800’s as a way to settle questions of authorship by, for example, finding patterns in the length of words used by various authors.

Nassif goes on to a discussion of origami, Penrose tiles quasicrytals, robotics and more, as they relate to mathematics.

Alice Major, the poet laureate mentioned in Nassif’s post, wrote about her experience at Banff in a Dec. 14, 2011 posting,

The invitation to Banff thrilled me, but it also tipped me through a trap door in my psyche.  I would be surrounded by people who negotiated the academic environment easily. The list of participants detailed their various affiliations, but I had to be categorized as ‘independent.’ That sounds a lot sturdier than I felt. University had been a very scary place for me four decades ago. All my fellow students seemed to know so much more than me, to be so much more sophisticated than a kid from Outer Scarberia. I never seemed to have the right answers in class, the right clothes. And at that time I was only coping with the English program – a language I could supposedly understand – not the dense math language of symbol and equation.

So here I was. Nor could I just sit at the back of the class and absorb. At some point I was going to have to stand up and wring myself out. I’d have to talk to them. By the time I actually did so, my brain was melting jelly.

I intended to talk about metaphor, how it is an underlying mode of thought, not just a decoration, and applies to all realms of creation. Fortunately, writers can read bits of what they’ve written, and at least those sentences are coherent. I got through the outline of what I meant to say. But, in the discussion afterwards, when David Mumford asked a question about how we might teach metaphor better, I could only look at him and think, “A Fields medalist is asking me a question. What the $%@# do I say now?”

I gave some feebly irrelevant response. It was only afterwards, when the neural jelly was starting to re-set, that I thought, “For heavens sake, Alice, that whole chapter of the book is about how we can teach and learn metaphorical thinking!”

The book Major was remembering was her recently published, Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science.

So there you have it, math, poetry, musicals, dance, Penrose tiles, Gaussian distribution curves, etc.