Mathematics and Art: Why can’t we be friends?


The figures of Geometry and Arithmetic by the Coëtivy Master, late 15th century (detail from Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius)

For most of history, mathematics and the visual arts have been friends. Art was not distinguished from what we now call “craft,” and mathematics – geometry and arithmetic – provided both a source of inspiration and a set of tools. Polykleitos, for example, in the 5th century BC, outlined a set of “ideal” proportions for use in sculpture, based on the square root of two (1.414…). Some later artists used the golden ratio (1.618…) instead.

Symmetry has also been an important part of art, as in the Navajo rug below, as well as a topic of investigation for mathematicians.


Navajo woollen rug, early 20th century (Honolulu Museum of Art)

The Renaissance saw the beginning of the modern idolisation of artists, with Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. However, the friendship between mathematics and art became even closer. The theory of perspective was developed during 14th and 15th centuries, so that paintings of the time have one or more “vanishing points,” much like the photograph below.


Perspective in the Galerie des Batailles at Versailles (base image: 1890s Photochrom print, Library of Congress)

Along with the theory of perspective, there was in increasing interest in the mathematics of shape. In particular, the 13 solid shapes known as Archimedean polyhedra were rediscovered. Piero della Francesca rediscovered six, and other artists, such as Luca Pacioli rediscovered others (the last few were rediscovered by Johannes Kepler in the early 17th century). Perspective, polyhedra, and proportion also come together in the work of Albrecht Dürer. Illustrations of the Archimedean polyhedra by Leonardo da Vinci appear in Luca Pacioli’s book De Divina Proportione.


Illustration of a Cuboctahedron by Leonardo da Vinci for Luca Pacioli’s De Divina Proportione (1509)

Some modern artists have continued friendly relations with mathematics. The Dutch artist M. C. Escher (reminiscent of Dürer in some ways) sought inspirations in the diagrams of scientific publications, for example.


Tiling by M. C. Escher on the wall of a museum in Leeuwarden (photo: Bouwe Brouwer)

Today it is possible to follow in Escher’s footsteps by studying a Bachelor of Fine Arts / Bachelor of Science double degree at some institutions. There is also a renewed interest in the beauty of mathematical objects, whether three-dimensional (such as polyhedra) or two-dimensional (such as the Mandelbrot set). The role of the artist then becomes that of bringing out the beauty of the object through rendering, colouring, choice of materials, sculptural techniques, and the like.


View of the Mandelbrot set at −0.7435669 + 0.1314023 i with width 0.0022878 (image: Wolfgang Beyer)

Artistic techniques such as these (“must we call them “craft” or “graphic design”?) are also important in the field of data visualisation, and are recognised by the “Information is Beautiful” Awards. Speaking of which, this year’s awards are now open for submissions.


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Mathematics in action: dice

We are all familiar with dice of various kinds. With fair dice, each number will come up with equal probability, regardless of how the die is rolled. This requires a degree of symmetry – we want a die to be a polyhedron where all the faces are equivalent. The obvious candidates are therefore the five Platonic solids, in which not only the faces, but also the edges and vertices are equivalent. The Platonic solids give us the common d4, d6, d8, d12, and d20 dice:


Five Platonic dice (d4, d6, d8, d12, d20) and two pentagonal trapezohedra (d10) – photo by “Copat”

However, the Platonic solids are more symmetrical than necessary for the job. A tetragonal disphenoid, for example, makes a very good d4:


A tetragonal disphenoid makes an alternative d4 – photo by “Traitor”

What is required is that a die be isohedral (also called “face-transitive”). Each face should be equivalent. Specifically, for any numbers A and B, given the die with A on top, there should be a series of rotations and reflections that make the die look like the starting position, but with B on top. This rules out shapes like the gyroelongated square bipyramid, where all the faces are equilateral triangles, but the triangles are not equivalent (the “end” triangles differ from the “middle” triangles):


A gyroelongated square bipyramid does not make a fair die – photo by Andrew Kepert

We also want a die to be convex, so that it can land on its faces. Stellated polyhedra are excluded:


Stellated polyhedra cannot be dice – mosaic in St Mark’s Basilica, Venice

Trapezohedra satisfy this “convex and isohedral” rule, and the pentagonal trapezohedron is commonly used as a d10 (see the picture above). Trapezohedra work best with 10, 14, 18, … sides, since then pairs of faces can be parallel, and there can be an unambiguous “top” number. The cube can be seen as a special case of a trapezohedron.

For 12, 16, 20, …. sides, bipyramids make good dice (the octahedron is a special case of a bipyramid):


A bipyramid makes a good d16 – photo by “Traitor”

These are not the only shapes satisfying the definition, however. The 13 Catalan solids also satisfy it, and some of them make good candidates for dice. For example, the deltoidal icositetrahedron and the tetrakis hexahedron are both good candidates for d24:


The deltoidal icositetrahedron and tetrakis hexahedron are alternatives for d24 – photos by Jacqueline de Swart (left) and “Traitor” (right)

Some Catalan solids, like the pentagonal icositetrahedron, are unsuitable as dice because there is no unambiguous “top” number. On the other hand, there are some additional variations that are isohedral, like the hexakis tetrahedron.

For more on this subject, see Alea Kybos’ impressive dice page.