The Art of Mathematics

Interior of a sea shell

PBS recently aired a great documentary, The Great Math Mystery. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth the time. The photography alone is amazing. In the producers’ quest to help us explore key ideas in mathematics history, nature, structure of the universe, and more, we are exposed to some beautiful fractals, graphics from the Hubble Space Telescope, and 3-D models. A “non-math-y” friend commented “math is prettier than I thought.” Her comment got me thinking. How many people really do believe art and math are on nearly opposite ends of the spectrum of fields of study? Or they are classified as entirely non-overlapping concepts?

In a way, her response is typical of many students today. Topics or subjects are distinct to the classroom or textbook in which they are taught. They aren’t transferred to other courses/concepts/ideas. So the students miss the Gestalt, or bigger pictures of what they learning. And they miss the incredible connections between fields that emerge when you start to see how the puzzle pieces connect.

Consider the spirals on a pineapple. Fibonacci sequence? How about the incredible beauty of intricately stitched Amish quilt patterns? Tessellations. Design of dinosaurs for Jurassic Park? Fractals.

Visit the Virtual Math Museum for some amazing images. Take a look at some materials at the National Gallery of Art.  One section that caught my eye is New Angles in Art.  How do artists and architects use math to create their works? The description on the website says, “In these lessons, students explore the intersection of math and art in the works of two artists and one architect for whom mathematical concepts (lines, angles, two-dimensional shapes and three-dimensional polyhedra, fractions, ratios, and permutations) and geometric forms were fundamental.” They explore the work of artists such as Sol LeWitt. Or, take a few minutes to visit the Math in Art festival page. Lots of ideas for the methods classes for education majors, too!

If you have some free time, try creating your own polyhedra using origami. Naturally, you have to spend time exploring M. C. Escher’s work, too. You can explore the work of Albrecht Durer and Leonardo da Vinci. Somehow April and Mathematical Awareness Month, might have gotten away from you, but it’s not too late to read about Mathematics and Art, the theme for 2015, published by Joseph Malkevitch, from York College (CUNY), and American Mathematical Society.

Too many of us see math as a list of formulas, pages of computations, equations, data….and yes, it is that. But it’s also the language of big ideas. It’s a means of communicating key scientific ideas, modeling the universe, and creating models of our world. Charles Caleb Colton put it up quite when he said, “The study of mathematics, like the Nile, begins in minuteness but ends in magnificence.”


About the Author
Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister

Diane Hollister has been teaching college courses since 1992. In June 2015, she resigned from her full-time position at Reading Area Community College in Reading, Pennsylvania, where all the math courses have undergone some level of redesign. She still teaches online there and now is part of Pearson’s Efficacy team, helping instructors to implement programs and strategies that bolster student success.

She is intrigued by neurobiological research and learning theory, and she was quick to adopt adaptive learning as a new tool in her courses. Not only does she strive to help her students succeed, but Diane enjoys the collaboration with her peers. She has taught a variety of courses and loves learning how new technology and resources can help students be more successful.


Read more of her articles about math, ICTCM, and quantitative reasoning.