Devadoss reconciles math, art through Da Vinci

Satyan Devadoss opened this year’s faculty lecture series on a provocative note. “I think the talk that I’m going to give you could get me in a lot of trouble at a liberal arts school,” said Devadoss, professor of mathematics, to an attentive crowd in the Wege Auditorium last Thursday.

In his lecture, “Reclaiming Da Vinci: Art, Visualization, Mathematics,” Devadoss advocated a productive merger of art and mathematics, thus emulating the multi-talented Italian genius.

“The dangerous part about trying to reclaim DaVinci is that we’re already fragmented,” Devadoss said, noting that at Williams, this disconnect is physically represented by Rte. 2, which separates Div. III subjects (science and mathematics) from those in Div. I and II (languages and the arts, and social studies). Devadoss wants to find a way to bring all of these “divisions” together so that they can drive one another in new and innovative directions.

Devadoss began the lecture by presenting several well-known paintings that incorporate specific mathematical concepts, including Pierro della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ, which exemplifies the use of perspective, geometry and ratios, as well as a work by the modern artist Joshua Davis, which uses vector graphics and Adobe Illustrator to create art alongside computer software. He then surprised the audience by objecting to these innovative combinations. “All these examples are completely flawed,” he said. “This is not the right way to bring math and art together.”

While these paintings employ mathematical concepts, Devadoss pointed out that no mathematician will use Salvador Dali’s The Crucifixion to understand the fourth dimension. For Devadoss, art should shape mathematics, just as mathematics has shaped art. “How can art push cutting-edge math?” he asked.

To answer that question, Devadoss first noted that mathematicians have the mindset that “pictures” are not rigorous enough to direct research in mathematics. But Devadoss went on to disprove this allegation by highlighting three specific art forms: cartography, origami and configurations.

Devadoss used the evolution of the London subway system map to prove his point. The first map he displayed was perfect by mathematical standards, but visually impractical and confusing. Through the influence of graphic arts, mathematicians were forced to create a map that combined human and technical knowledge, thereby elevating both mathematics and cartography. “This is the kind of compromise that brings art and math together,” Devadoss said.

Origami, another striking art form, pushed mathematics and science to new levels when Kaori Kuribayashi, a graduate scholar at Oxford, was inspired by a Japanese origami museum exhibit to design an intricately folded stent, a medical device used to open blocked sites in the body. Devadoss also cited the James Webb space telescope, which incorporated concepts from this traditional craft to build an oversized telescope that could be folded to fit inside a spaceship. Lastly, Devadoss described “configurations,” a visual way of analyzing the four-dimensional world.

By highlighting the unique ways that art and mathematics can collaborate, Devadoss made a compelling case for ignoring the division of Rte. 2 and working across the College’s departments.

The next faculty lecture, entitled “What is Iraq? Defining the Iraqi Nation, 1921-2008,” will take place tomorrow in Wege Auditorium and will be given by Magnus Bernhardsson, professor of history. Next week, Gerard Caprio, professor of economics, will deliver a lecture entitled “Financial Crises: A Hardy Perennial.”