How they try to make math soulless- and why they will fail

One of my major sources of posts is someone saying something that distresses me. When I was a student at the University of Kansas, I was chatting with a group of people in the cafeteria on the bottom level of Wescoe Hall. Someone had brought a potential girlfriend, a visual arts major, to lunch. When she heard I was a mathematics major, she said “I cannot believe you would do something so soulless and cold.” At the time I didn’t have a good response, but its been many years and I’ve learned a few things since. In this post I want to look at interactions between math, art, and science and make the case that hostility between math and art is bad for art, bad for math, and bad for humanity.

The pictures below are ones I harvested from the Wikimedia commons. They are from a tomb in ancient Egypt, the Bayeux tapestry, which describes the Norman invasion of England, and a painting entitled “Handing the keys to St. Peter” from the Italian Renaissance.

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 7.45.43 PM





My point is a simple one: the pictures look very different from one another. The sense of depth in the Renaissance picture is not there in the other two. If you look at what was happening with Renaissance artists, they studied science and mathematics in the service of their craft. Leonardo DaVinci substantially advanced the science of anatomy and is credited as a co-founder of paleontology along with Cuiver. DaVinci wanted to have a clear understanding of human anatomy in order to be able to paint people. His Vitruvian Man is iconic and among the most caricatured of pictures.

The renaissance artists used the natural sciences and mathematics for every purpose from making better pigments to making their drawings and painting more accurate representations of the things they depicted. The disciple of perspective drawing is an exercise in geometry and, at the time, it was the cutting edge of art. In this era, substantial advances in mathematics arose from the push for better art.

Art and science have been linked for centuries. James Audubon, for example, made many paintings of birds as a way of documenting those birds. His book The Birds of America is a classic. The ivory billed woodpecker, a species that is extinct (or very well hidden) is preserved by Audubon’s paintings. Herbals are books describing plants, beautiful and also useful for cooking and medicine. Illustrations were key in identifying plants.  One of the illustrations below is from an herbal by Otto Brunfels.


Notice that Bunfels’ picture of the European white water lily is descriptive rather that representative. Various life stages of the plant are shown together.

My father was an entomologist at the University of Kansas. One of the standard types of papers he published was a description of a new species of insect. You would think that a photograph of the new insect species would be a natural part of the paper, but it isn’t. Instead he used detailed line drawings. Like the herbal illustration, a line drawing permits emphasis of multiple details that would require several photographs. The drawing that defines the insect to the scientific community does not look like the actual insect ever will. For the purposes of scientific description, a line drawing was superior to a photograph. This strongly supports the view, often expressed by artists, that art can be more real than reality.

The perception of mathematics as divorced from, and even antithetical to, art is fairly recent. I think it is also idiotic.

This perception originates in part from the co-option of math and science by the military-industrial complex during and after the second world war and in the counter-culture opposition to the war machine. Another factor is the general public contempt for and fear of mathematics that makes dissing mathematics not only acceptable but something helps declare your membership in the arts clan. Against this I declare that understanding mathematics cannot make you a worse artist and, historically, has led to the development of new techniques, styles, and schools of art. I will look into the continuing application of math to new types of art in a post on fractals.

Permitting mathematics to be almost entirely the handmaiden of the weapons merchants and technocrats is a really bad idea.

The declaration of math as cold and soulless reinforces the preemption of its power and beauty by the man, his cohorts, and his lackeys. Math can be used to document oppression and discrimination in loans and housing. It can be used to make people better able to defend themselves from scams. I’ll be talking about the deep connection between music and mathematics in a future post. The antipathy that has sprung up between the two cultures of math and art is both counterproductive and unnecessary. Occupy Math welcomes your suggestions of positive steps to take to bridge the divide; please add them in the comments or send a tweet.

I hope I see you here again.

Dan Ashlock
Department of Mathematics and Statistics
University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada


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