Thursday, September 27, 2012

Summer recap continued: Bridges 2012

Way back in July, my pottery-, parenthood-, and standing-in-line-friend Dr. J (Duke PhD in Mathematics, 2009) and I traveled to Towson University to attend the Bridges Conference. According to the Bridges website, the conference is the largest mathematics and art interdisciplinary conference in the world, so you can see why J was the perfect travel companion.

I had some ceramic pieces in both the conference exhibit and an associated month-long exhibit in the Towson University art gallery. I knew I was in clay-geek heaven when, as I unpacked my nested spheroids for display, a mathematartist came over for a peek and, hearing the pieces were handmade, said, "you mean you didn't make those with a 3D printer? What did you say those are made of??" Yep, I make my nested spheroids the old fashioned way: by hand, from clay, on a potter's wheel, just as generations of my ancestors would have done before me, had they had the opportunity, the years of training, and the sense that it was actually necessary.

"You mean you didn't make those with a 3D printer?"--Renowned Mathematartist at Bridges 2012

J and I attended numerous talks, browsed assorted displays of math-related art, books, and toys, perused the art exhibits, explored small downtown Towson, conversed with enthusiastic math-art folk, went on an "Excursion Day" tour of Baltimore, and overall had a swell time.

There's a nice video summary of the art exhibits here: . (If you want proof that J and I were really there, pay attention at 1:09.)

With multiple concurrent sessions, it was impossible to get to all of the talks. Of the ones I attended, those that stood out enhanced my understanding of both math and art. These included a sort of six-degrees-of-separation networks talk by Brian Evans; a talk by Greg Frederickson on polygon dissections, with beautiful animated videos illustrating not only that any polygon, properly dissected, can be reassembled into another polygon of equal area (think of Tanagrams), but also highlighting the different ways to transform the pieces (reflections, rotations, etc.); a delightful lecture-demonstration by mathematician and former professional clown Mike Naylor on using math to predict, describe, and invent juggling patterns; and an amusingly touchy-feely group workshop, led by Luke Wolcott, on imagining negative-dimensional space (-1D, -2D, etc.) that had us dancing in circles by the end.

One of my conference highlights was meeting the inventor of Space Chips, Dick Esterle. He had a large-scale collaborative Space-Chips vision that he wanted to realize at the conference, so he brought a few thousand bright orange 5-slit chips with him to make it happen. (There were, in fact, multiple artists with large-scale visions for collaborative art in assorted different media. It would not be inaccurate--litotes!--to say there was a competitive undercurrent between folks who wanted their visions realized. Largest, tallest, mostest, firstest, pointiest, originalest, elaboratest-Greek-prefix-before-"hedron," etc.) The Space Chips project started a few days into the conference; J and I wandered into the construction extravaganza around 4pm, when we couldn't handle attending yet another talk. Little did we know we'd get sucked in for eight straight hours. We tried to escape for dinner, but our ringleader looked so disappointed, we ended up turning back and suggesting we order out for pizza instead. A major downpour deterred our second attempt to escape at 11pm, so we stuck it out until the last component was put in place, and the vision--a giant orange Space Chips megalohedron--was realized. It turns out that this was a vision that kept on giving: if you spend 8 hours assembling 3,200 bright orange Space Chips into a giant ball, what you dream about all night long is bright orange space chips.

Below are two other projects that required group efforts to realize. J and I learned how to fold and assemble the playing-cards mock-up in the foreground of the photo below, but bailed before visionary George Hart moved the party on to the larger cardboard creation.

Late Thursday night, while we were inside working on the orange megalohedron, another group was tempting fate outside by building this tall pointy thing in a brewing thunderstorm. Sorry, I remember the names of neither the visionary nor the components.

No conference talks were scheduled on Friday because it was Excursion Day. J and I and 148 or so other conference attendees headed to Baltimore. The first stop was the Walters Museum of Art, where we were treated to a fascinating lecture by Will Noel on the Archimedes Palimpsest. In the 13th century, a monk harvested the parchment out of Archimedes' Codex C (presumed to have been copied from original scrolls in the 10th c.) and a bunch of other outdated books to create a new prayer book; the pages of the codex were cut up and refolded, mixed up with pieces of parchment from other books, the original texts wiped off, and new text written on the primed pages. Noel and the Walters Museum led a 12-year multinational project that, using assorted imaging techniques, deciphered the original texts. You can find assorted videos on YouTube on the palimpsest-decoding project, including Noel's TED talk. After the talk, we had some time to peruse the museum.

We saw Gilbert Stuart's iconic 1825 rendering of George Washington, plus lots of other stuff I didn't take photos of.

Our next stop was the Baltimore Museum of Art. J and I were feeling a little art-museumed out, so we skipped out of the guided tours and had lunch a few blocks away. To get back, we had to cross over to the far side.

The Baltimore Museum of Art is a good place for thinkers.

From there, it was on to Fort McHenry. During the War of 1812, on September 13, 1814 (1812 was a long year), the British fleet bombarded the fort. An American lawyer was on one of the British ships, negotiating a prisoner exchange when the Battle of Baltimore started; when he saw, through the dawn's early light, that a star-spangled banner yet waved o'er the fort (are you getting patriotic goosebumps yet? The Visitors Center video was very good at inducing patriotic goosebumps), he penned a four-stanza poem entitled "Defense of Fort McHenry." His brother-in-law set the words to a popular tune ("The Anacreontic Song") that is so hard to sing, we can be grateful our national anthem only uses the first verse of Frances Scott Key's poem. (Personally, I think we'd be better off both in music and sentiment with "America the Beautiful," but oh well.) Incidentally, Key spent much of his later legal career prosecuting anti-slavery activists for supposed rabble rousing, which puts an interesting spin on the line "the land of the free."

J and I ditched the group tour at the Visitors Center and went off to explore the fort on our own. There, I learned that when the flag was raised daily over Fort McHenry, it was often to the tune Yankee Doodle. Of course I immediately set to learning to finger the tune on the handy chicklet ocarina I was wearing around my neck. During the rest of the conference, this new-found facility served to entertain primarily me, but also the occasional inquiring mathematician.

After visiting Fort McHenry, everyone piled wearily back into the buses, and we headed to Baltimore's Inner Harbor, where we were sent off to entertain ourselves until the evening. As it was a hot, hot day, J took a carefree barefoot gallivant through a fountain (too swift to completely capture on camera).

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the invitingly cool, soothing National Aquarium. No pix, as the lights were dim and the fish were fast.

The conference continued until Sunday evening, but alas, work beckoned, so J and I left on Saturday afternoon. Consequently--can you believe this?--my chicklet and I missed the Bridges 2012 Informal Music Night! Dang! I'll have to plan better next time. And there will be a next time, if not in one year, then in 2, or 3, or 5, or 8, or 13, or...

Update 9/28: J reminded me via a comment about Henry Segerman's talk on 3D-printed representations of regular 4D polytopes, the analogues of the 3-dimensional regular polyhedra; which reminded me that I also failed to mention Carlo Sequin's talk on Klein Knottles; which sent me perusing the gallery again, reminding me of Bjarne Jespersen's amazing wood knots (he's written a book showing how he makes them) as well as David Chappell's mesmerizing prints (which showed, in a gallery full of vibrant colors and multi-dimensional representations, how immensely satisfying grey 2D can be).

1 comment:

Janice McCarthy said...

You forgot to mention the sculptures in S3!!! A very nice use of the 3D printer to show us things we could not otherwise see.

Such an exciting conference! Thanks for inviting me :)