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Painting with numbers

Proof doesn’t add up but Justin Mullins balances the equation

Alom Shaha 14 February 2006

Polymath: Mullins with one of his beautiful equations

Justin told me that a woman had Euler’s Theorem tattooed on her arm after seeing his exhibition

Mathematics is not a spectator sport, by George M. Philips, is the title of a book I've been given to review. If the title of the book is correct, I'm in trouble as I've just started a job where I'm going to have to make some short films about maths.

To seek inspiration for this task, I went to see the new movie Proof which tells the story of a young woman who gives up her life to take care of her dying father, a brilliant mathematician who has lost his marbles. After he’s dead, an old notebook of his is found to contain the proof for one of math’s most difficult problems. The film doesn’t tell you what this is but all the references to primes in the movie make me guess it was supposed to be the proof of the Reimann Hypothesis. The woman claims she wrote the proof and the rest of the film is about whether or not she’s a genius like her father or just going loony tunes too.

The film is based on a play by David Auburn, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Rebecca Miller. It’s clear that they’ve done some research – they repeatedly mention the "fact" that mathematicians do their best work in their early 20’s and even throw in a joke about i, the square root of minus one. The portrayal of mathematicians is certainly nothing mathematicians can complain about – the lead parts are played by Gwyneth Paltrow and Jake Gyllenhaal, both looking ridiculously gorgeous and succeeding in making maths look like something really cool, sexy people do. However, the director, John Madden, told the BBC that the film is not about maths; "it isn't really about mathematics or complex equations…it's primarily about family – in simple terms, it's about a bereavement and a girl's struggle to find herself." Perhaps this explains why the film never really showed what maths is about or why it’s so special that all these people would get so passionate about it. Unlike A Beautiful Mind (the comparison is inevitable), this film not only failed to explain any maths, it also failed to make you believe in or care about the mental breakdown at the heart of the story. Instead of finding the film inspiring, I was simply bored.

Disappointed by Proof, I sought inspiration elsewhere and found it at Justin Mullins’ "Mathematical Photography" exhibition (recently finished at Lauderdale House in London). This is an exhibition of "the most beautiful equations in science" as selected by Justin, who insists he is neither a mathematician nor an artist. When I walked into the gallery, I saw a class of children sat listening to their teacher as she talked to them in front of one of the beautifully presented equations. Taking a look around the gallery myself, I soon saw why she had decided to bring her class to see the "photographs".

The stark black Times New Roman text on a white background certainly looks striking. Other artists have been fascinated by typography and some have even exhibited mathematical equations. But it’s not just the act of putting equations in a gallery or the beauty of the "photographs" that made this exhibition special. Beside each equation is a title and "commentary" in Justin’s own words, often explaining why the equation is beautiful, or in some cases, ugly. I would never have thought that giving a girl an equation from quantum physics was "romantic" until I read Justin’s description of entanglement:

Particles that become entangled are deeply connected regardless of the distance between them. If they become separated by the width of the Universe, the bond between them remains intact. These particles are so deeply linked that it’s as if they somehow share the same existence.

Other descriptions are equally eloquent and Justin’s words have a way of making you stop and think about the equations in a way that the pictures on their own simply wouldn’t.

Equations have a sort of mysticism attached to them and Justin’s photographs look like they’d make nice tattoos, in much the same way that Chinese characters do for some people. In fact, Justin told me that a woman had Euler’s Theorem tattooed on her arm after seeing his exhibition. I’m sure the equation looks very pretty on her arm, but without understanding what it means, it can only superficially convey the beauty of mathematics to the casual viewer, rather like the film Proof.

Justin will continue "collecting" equations that interest him, but he believes that "a lot of the beauty of mathematics is in the process" and wants to explore ways of conveying this to non-mathematicians. Although he doesn’t see himself as an "educator", Justin’s work clearly has educational value and I hope he finds a way to develop it further.

Related links

You can see examples of Justin Mullin’s "Mathematical Photography" here.

You can see a film about a Euclidean proof which Alom made with Marcus du Sautoy here.

Encounter Alom Shaha in the blogosphere here.