I don’t think the university maths department I work in has enough art in it. I have gazed covetously upon the walls of other departments I visit, covered with beautiful mathematically-inspired paintings and inspirational posters, serving as a backdrop to cabinets full of geometrical curiosities. I recently suggested to our Head of School that we could buy some art, and he said “That’s a good idea. Send me some suggestions.”
I was pretty delighted with that response, so I spent an enjoyable hour trawling the internet for art that would inspire and enrich our students and staff. We don’t really have anywhere obvious to put sculptures, so I wanted something you can hang on a wall. I had no idea how much money the Head of School was thinking of spending, so I assumed the worst and tried to stick to cheap posters and prints as a starting point. I wasn’t just looking for art – anything to decorate the walls, even if it ends up teaching the students something, is desirable.
My first port of call was my Arty Maths blog. I’ve been collecting nice bits of art that invoke or involve maths (and not art created purely to represent maths) for almost two years now. Unfortunately, it turns out I’ve almost exclusively been collecting sculptures and video works. That meant I had to do some googling!
Because I found some nice things, and in case anyone else is tasked with decorating a maths department and needs ideas, here’s what I found:
Some chaps in America have produced “Modern Nomograms”: charts for quickly doing Bayesian calculations. I’ve always thought they look nice, but I leave it up to the statisticians to judge whether they’re worthwhile from a statistical perspective. The big poster is $25 plus shipping.
Simon C Page is a mathematician turned graphic designer. His geometric prints are very nice. 16″x24” posters are £40.
Brent Yorgey produced these factorisation diagrams a few months ago. They’re quite pretty, they take a while to understand, and he’s shared the code used to make them so we can make posters as big as we like. He mentioned on his blog that he was looking into having proper posters made up, so I’ve emailed him to ask if that ever happened.
Johnny Lin keeps a list of links to mathematical posters on his website. I’ve collected the best ones below.
The Beauty of Mathematics Poster Collection offers a few sets of posters on geometrical topics lying just on the threshold of being interesting. I think the undergrads might like them, but I don’t like the graphic design. £30 for a set of five laminated A2 posters on a single topic.
Peter Jipsen has a few freely-available PDFs of posters on his site. I particularly like the series expansions of $e$ and $\ln 2$. The rest are basically just Beamer slides.
Ivan Andrus has made this fantastic periodic table of the finite simple groups. I think it’s a lovely idea with a decent execution, and the classification of the finite simple groups is the longest proof in history, so I reckon it’s worth commemorating.
I found this company selling prints of decimal representations of the biggest Mersenne primes. They seem to have stopped in 2008; I’m not sure if they just lost interest or realised the primes were getting too big to print at any size. Anyway, I think walking past a ridiculously long prime every day would make people smile. An unframed print is $99 plus shipping.
There’s a site selling rather light-hearted posters of mathematicians. I think quite a few maths departments have copies of these, so we might want to buck the trend, but they’re quite nice designs, if a bit garish. I might email them and ask if they’re planning on doing any more women – Ada Lovelace on her own is a bit of a poor show! Each poster $30.
The Bridges conference is an annual gathering of people working on the connections between maths and art. I had a look through last year’s exhibits, and John Higli and Markus Rissanen stood out. I don’t know how easy it would be to obtain pieces from them, though.
Edmund Harriss does lots of work on connecting art and maths, and could be commissioned to do something if we had more than a poster’s worth of cash. He knows a lot about geometry.
Now that I’ve compiled this post I can see that I mainly found things which were more educational than aesthetically pleasing. There’s plenty of lovely maths art out there – see the Bridges conference’s enormous collection of exhibits – but it seems the artists either aren’t interested in selling prints, or don’t make it easy to find out that they do. That’s a shame, because there seems to be a big gap in the market between the garish no-design educational posters and beautiful but expensive commissioned pieces.
So, if you’re a mathematical artist who either already sells prints of your work or could be convinced to, please send me an email. Or if you’re not an artist but have a recommendation for something I’ve missed, please post a link in the comments.