Mathemalchemy Project Comes to Duke

A small model of the Mathemalchemy project shown at the Joint Mathematics Session on Mathematics and the Arts held in Denver, CO in January 2020

Mathemalchemy, a “Collaborative sculptural art installation using textile and other media to illustrate mathematical creativity” is the brainchild of Duke Mathematics professor Ingrid Daubechies and Dominique Ehrmann, a Canadian fiber artist specializing in unusual quilting techniques that involve kinetics, transparency, light, and other elements.

The Mathemalchemy installation will feature various mathematical objects and craft techniques. It seeks to illustrate the creativity of mathematicians, and the many links between mathematical concepts and their connection with the real world by means of attractive, colorful patterns with a dynamic flow.

Daubechies and Ehrmann first presented their concept, illustrated by the small and preliminary model pictured above, at the Joint Mathematics session on Mathematics and the Arts held in Denver, CO in January of 2020 and made a call for collaborators in the project. At the end of the presentation, 15 attendees volunteered their time and creativity to develop the project, including holding joint workshops. Among the team are both mathematicians and artists, who will work together to create the parts of the installation based on a mathematical narrative. Project participants include (but are not limited to):

Ingrid Daubechies: Ingrid is a mathematician on the Mathematics Department faculty at Duke since January 2011 and is also a member of the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke. Ingrid's mathematical research interests are in applied functional and geometric analysis. Ingrid has also been part of a wide range of interdisciplinary projects, ranging  from  image  analysis  and  −  processing  with  electrical  engineers  to  multiresolution  numerical  algorithms  with  seismologists,  and  from  the  analysis  of  ICA for  functional  Magnetic  Resonance  Imaging  with psychologists to the study of shape evolution with biological morphologists. Ingrid has also worked in collaboration with artists and with art conservators, using image analysis to build tools to assist art conservation projects, as documented on

Dominique Ehrmann: Dominique is a self-taught Canadian fiber artist, telling stories through the quilts she sews. Over the years, she has perfected ways to combine classical quilting techniques with approaches less common in the quilting world such as adding a kinetic element, playing with light and transparency, or making the quilt 3-dimensional.

Dorothy Buck: Dorothy is a mathematician who recently joined Duke University, after spending many years in academic positions in the UK. She holds a joint position at Duke University with the Mathematics and Biology Departments. Dorothy's research is in Topology, more particularly in knot theory; she has worked on both the mathematical, fundamental side, and on applications of knot theory to biology, typically involving biopolymers such as DNA and proteins. She has been involved in other projects that link art and mathematics, in particular in the framework of Knots in Nature, funded by the Leverhulme Trust in the UK.

Shan Shan: Shan Shan is a mathematician in a postdoctoral appointment working with Ingrid in the Rhodes Information Initiative and the Mathematics Departments at Duke. She will help with the mathematical organization as well as the concrete realization of the project. She will also be in charge of making photographs and short videos at the team meetings, to be used to make a record of the building of the installation.

Kathy Peterson: Kathy is the administrative coordinator of the Rhodes Information Initiative at Duke. Kathy manages the practical organization, coordinating travel, lodging, and meals for the team members participating in Mathemalchemy workshops. Kathy is also an accomplished seamstress in her own right, and will help with sewing tasks for Mathemalchemy.

Artists involved with the project include Daina Taimina, a retired mathematician from the Mathematics Department at Cornell University. Her research interests are in geometry, history of mathematics, educational mathematics, and automata theory. She initiated the use of crochet techniques to make concrete models for hyperbolic geometry for W. Thurston, and wrote the book on the topic, Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes: Tactile Mathematics, Art, and Craft for all to Explore. Carolyn Yackel, a mathematics professor at Mercer University and a fiber artist who is interested in the intersection of art and mathematics, especially in the teaching of mathematics. Susan Goldstine, a professor of mathematics and computer science at St. Mary’s College who is interested in demonstrating the symmetries of polyhedra with origami.

With support from the Simons Foundation, the Leverhulme Trust, and the Rhodes Information Initiative, the Mathemalchemy project has now launched, and when completed, will become a traveling art installation. In March, the project will begin to take form as the participants gather for a first “genesis meeting.” After 2 more work meetings in June and July, the final touches to the installation will be made in mid-August.

Mathemalchemy will be displayed at various other locations before settling here at Duke for community members to enjoy in the Mathematics Department. Keep an eye out as we will continue to post more information about this exciting collaborative project!

Author: Ariel Dawn

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