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Where math becomes fun  Jul 27, 2018

This article is contributed by Aakrati Agarwal and Mythri S., who were participants at a science writing workshop conducted by Vigyan Prasar at IISER Pune during October 2017.

In 2015, the Mathematics Cosmetic Committee of Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune threw a challenge to mathematicians, artists and everyone in the campus—designing a mural. The designers were expected to include three elements in their art: artistic value, mathematical aspect, and spatial elements. The winning mural was to be offered the glory of occupying a wall in their new Mathematics Lounge.

The Mathematics Lounge is a large room, adorned with various props depicting mathematical models, and discoveries. The walls of this room are decorated with portraits of mathematicians, group photographs of the Mathematics members and graduate students, and other interesting paintings. This is a room where a unique culture of interaction between faculty and students is nurtured during frequent meetings. The lounge hosts informal discussions once a week over coffee and snacks and during Happiness hours of Fridays.

The lounge also sports the celebrated pi-clock designed by the Mathematics members of IISER Pune. This clock has integers replaced by functions of ‘pi’. For example, the number 3 is represented by pi as the value of pi is close to the integer 3. Pi is a favourite number among mathematicians.

The room décor is now made vibrant by the winning mural created by Vishrutha, Tanushree Shah, Devika Varma, Aswathi, Shreeya Behera and Tejas Kalelkar. The mural represents in one frame, images of legendary mathematicians who lived in different times. It is an artist’s vision of famous scientists engrossed in their work; a perfect setting for thinking minds.

Seen on the left is Srinivasa Ramanujan, reclining on a charcoal colored sofa. His thoughts trail upwards to a goddess figure, who he claimed to be Namagiri. She is dressed in a red and green sari, bedecked in gold and is seen holding a placard carrying the number 1729. The Ramanujan-Hardy Number 1729 has its roots in the famous conversation Ramanujan had with the British mathematician G.H. Hardy, as he lay sick in a London clinic. Mathematicians have now discovered the significance of this number: it is related to elliptic curves and K3 surfaces which are objects that play a key role in string theory and quantum physics.

On the floor is a young Carl Friedrich Gauss – depicting an incident from his school where he displayed his skills as a math prodigy. His school master’s math assignment to the class was solved swiftly by the young Gauss. This incident was the birth of the famous Gaussian equation counting sums of squares of the first n natural numbers which has wide applications in science. Matching the charcoal sofa is a table at the centre of the room in the mural. The stems of the table are decorated with the expansion the number pi, only stopping when it runs out of leg space.

At the table are seated four math legends - John Forbes Nash Jr., mathematician from Princeton, thinking up the Nash Equilibrium Table; French mathematician Alexander Grothendieck famous for his contribution to modern algebraic geometry; Pierre de Fermat, the French lawyer and mathematician who produced the concepts of infinitesimal calculus; and Leonhard Euler, the Swiss polymath with cards showing trigonometric identities.

Behind them, on the wall, is a blue maze-like illustration of the Peano space-filling curve. Peano curves in geometry were first constructed by Giuseppe Peano and these curves occupy two dimensional spaces like squares and cubes. He presented the curve in the form of an ornamental tiling at his Turin home. Apart from mathematics, these curves find use in database indexing and radio-frequency electronics. The Hemachandra-Fibonacci number series, which was made popular by the Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci is depicted on a tree, signifying the mystifying representation of this series in all natural forms. The sequence was published in Indian scriptures many decades ago but Fibonacci introduced the series to the western world in his book Liber Abaci. The numbers- 1, 1, 2, 3, 5 depicted on the tree represent the successive numbers in the series.

On the edge of the wall is a bright sunflower, with symmetric yellow petals, the florets replaced by monochromatic symmetric shapes. Henri Poincare, the French mathematician and philosopher, who formulated the Poincare Conjecture is seen approaching the charcoal table. He is depicted to be pouring tea from a Klein Bottle into a coffee mug which apparently is a donut (a Klein bottle is known to exist in a 4-dimensional space – it has no boundary, it has no orientation). Poincare was famous for his lateral thinking ability and was known for seeing connections between two seemingly distinct ideas. 

On the extreme end of the mural is a bookshelf piled with some of the foremost titles written by mathematicians. Atop the bookshelf hangs a purple clock with numbers replaced by functions of ‘e’ – adding to the bemusement the mural evokes. This e-clock is inspired by the celebrated pi-clock described above.

It is truly a remarkable mural.

Written by Aakrati Agarwal and Mythri S.; Edited by Anisa Chorwadwala; Photo by Mythri S.