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Stunning exhibit of mathematical art opens Sept. 12

Math exhibit chair
Frank Farris/Provided
A Cherry Donut (digital print on aluminum, 2016).

Twenty-five images go on display in Cornell’s Malott Hall Sept. 12 in the exhibition, “SymmetryScapes: An Exhibition of Mathematical Art.” Artist Frank Farris created the display’s aluminum prints, purchased by Cornell’s math department to celebrate the beauty and diversity of symmetry.

The exhibition, on the fourth floor of Malott Hall, runs through Dec. 12, when it will move to the Sciencenter in Ithaca. Viewing hours are Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m. Admission is free and the public is welcome.

Farris, a mathematician at Santa Clara University, says symmetry seems to be a universal human experience: every known decorative culture produces some version of repeat patterns. “We all seem to take delight in seeing that one part of a pattern exactly matches another,” he says. “Symmetry connects to the rhythms of our bodies and the cycles of the seasons, making it a sort of comfort food for our eyes.”

To create his art, Farris begins with mathematical formulas that encode a certain type of symmetry pattern on a plane. He then uses a photograph that supplies colors that are transported to the plane based on the mathematical formulas. In the end, the formulas are invisible, but the colors reveal the symmetry pattern to the viewer.

Exhibit visitors will have their own chance to experiment with symmetry by manipulating transparency copies of the images on display over paper copies of the images.

“Symmetry is intuitive but it’s also something that can be understood on many levels, both visual and kinetic,” explains Robert Strichartz, professor of mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences and organizer of the exhibit.

Strichartz realized the appeal of Farris’ work when he brought home the artist’s book, “Creating Symmetry.”

“My grandkids saw it and were awed by the art,” says Strichartz. “They’re 13 and 10, so I thought Farris’ work was something that would have a wide appeal and would be a great thing to bring to Cornell. I’m always interested in outreach that shows the fun in mathematics.”

math exhibit globe
Frank Farris/Provided
Icosahedral Lampflower (digital print on aluminum, 2016)

The exhibit includes two interpretive texts for each artwork, one explaining the concept of the image and one, labeled “Technical Talk,” that explains the underlying mathematics in an accessible manner.

Farris will visit Cornell Sept. 29 to deliver the Kieval Lecture at 4:30 p.m. in Bache Auditorium, Malott Hall, on the mathematics of symmetry and his techniques. This will be a talk aimed at the level of undergraduate math majors.

Linda B. Glaser is a staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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