Beauty Is a Math Art Class

5:00 p.m., on a Tuesday afternoon. Halfway through the hour-and-a-half seminar period of high school mathematical art. It smells like Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids, and a little musty (but that’s just the smell of the Saint Ann’s School basement). The last song to come over my Bach Pandora Radio station was actually a Bach, but now we’re listening to a little Debussy.

On the floor, near the door, three kids play around on the computer, letting their minds mull over how to turn their fascination with the game Mastermind into a piece of mathematical art. They are inspired by this beautiful image of the game Tic Tac Toe, but they aren’t sure how to implement something like it with such a large game as Mastermind.

To my left, a boy searches the web for a piece of code he needs for his computerized work. He’s so far advanced in computer programming that I have no idea what he’s doing; I just can tell that it’s incredible.

Through the folding wall behind me, I hear a kid on the piano, riffing on some bars of a piece of music written to the square root of two. Now it’s melodic; now jazzy.

A few minutes later, a kid across the room folds something out of paper. “Hey, look at this,” he says. “It looks like a spiral.” The computer programmer beside me looks up, looks thoughtful, and says, “Wow, that’s actually really cool.” He puts his computer aside and scoots over to learn how to make it.

The only disruption to our total state of peace is the occasional scuffle from the duo on the floor at my feet, bickering over where to place the next Sonobe in their polyhedron. The color symmetries just aren’t working out right; it’s hard to build an icosahedron with two colors.

If the kid making a Rube Goldberg machine were here, things would be a bit noisier. The tranquility would be broken by a video of water flowing upwards in spirals or sound waves forcing sand into crazy patterns. He’s thinking that the theme of his machine will be curves, and he wants to incorporate as many as possible—linear, parabolic, sinusoidal, Brachistochrone, exponential… He’s home sick, though.

Me, I just knit. Sometimes I ask a question; sometimes someone asks me something. Am I in charge? I guess so. They’ve had class without me before, though, on a day when I was absent. Usually seminars are cancelled when the teacher is out; but they bought their own Swedish Fish and did their thing.

I love a math class full of bustle and noise, with discoveries, debates, and excitement whizzing around the room. But this is nice, too: a peaceful room where most of the sharing is done by showing, not by telling, and the making of mathematics takes a long time.


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