Picture this: ICERM program explores the imagery of mathematics

“Illustrating Mathematics,” a program happening throughout the semester at Brown’s national mathematics institute, aims to aid research and public engagement with math through visual representation.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Throughout the fall semester at ICERM, Brown University’s National Science Foundation mathematics institute, researchers and artists from across the world are coming together to bring mathematics to life in striking imagery.

The program, titled “Illustrating Mathematics,” has two complementary aims, says Brenden Hassett, a mathematics professor at Brown and ICERM’s director: to identify new ways to engage members of the broader community in math, and to encourage mathematicians to use modern computer visualization in their research.

“Images, animations and objects lead to mathematical discovery, allowing people to see patterns that are not apparent from a stream of numbers or equations,” Hassett said. “Nowadays, computer software, 3D printers and other computer-controlled tools are used to produce these. We hope to educate mathematicians across different specialties to use these to support their research, as well as to communicate mathematical concepts to students and the public.”

Over the course of the semester, mathematicians, artists, sculptors and makers will participate in a series of lectures, presentations and workshops. Some will delve deeply into challenging mathematical concepts, which Hassett hopes will assist scholars in developing new understanding of hard-to-imagine mathematics. Other events are aimed at the community, in the hopes of giving people a new appreciation of math-inspired images. 

“We have participants working in industries ranging from animation to textile design, with academic interests including material science, ceramics, architecture and the visual arts,” Hassett said. “We hope to show people that math is everywhere and intertwined with many branches of creative work.”

Among the public-facing events is an open house on Saturday, Sept. 28, from 6 to 8 p.m. at ICERM’s space at
121 South Main St. in Providence. The event will feature a variety exhibits and activities focused on the beauty of mathematics. It will be held in conjunction with the WaterFire Big Bang Science Fair, an annual event organized by Brown physics faculty members Meenakshi Narain and Ulrich Heintz. [Editor's Note: The ICERM event is currently sold out. Space remains for other events in Illustrating Mathematics series and at WaterFire.] The event is one of a series of public programs scheduled for the coming weeks. A complete list of events can be found on ICERM’s website

Online galleries of images created by the program’s participants as well as new images created as the program unfolds are available on ICERM's website. The images include detailed information about the mathematical concepts that underpin them.

The semester-long program grew out of a weeklong workshop that ran at ICERM in 2016. Hassett says the program was so successful that he and his colleagues wanted to expand its scope to a full semester. He worked with Richard Schwartz, a professor of mathematics at Brown, to pull the program together.

“Richard is also an accomplished artist in his own right, having published several very successful illustrated children's books on mathematical themes,” Hassett said. “He helped our visiting participants make connections with local artists.”

Hassett says that in bringing people of varying backgrounds and experience together is making for an exciting and dynamic semester at ICERM. 

“The artists’ skill representing mathematical objects will help mathematical scientists master innovative media and technology platforms, thus enhancing their ability to communicate their insights to their peers and society at large,” he said. 

The program is supported by the Simons Foundation, the Sloan Foundation and the National Science Foundation, which provides ICERM with its core funding.