Every so often, beauty comes up as a topic of conversation in editorial meetings at Scientific American. Surely there’s an article, or series of articles that we can develop on the topic? After all, it’s not unusual for theories and/or equations to be described as beautiful. Our conversations circle around to perception and aesthetics and neuroscience–indicating, perhaps, our attempts to find an objective foothold for a subjective experience. As we spin around the core of the topic, spiraling outward, the topic begins to lose its luster and the idea is shelved.

And so I was thrilled to see that Yale University Art Gallery was hosting an exhibit and conversation that would broach the topic of beauty head-on. At its heart, the Concinnitas project is a collaboration between a “mathematician who likes to think about art” (Daniel Rockmore, Dartmouth College) and an “art dealer who likes to think about mathematics” (Robert Feldman, Parasol Press). The result is a portfolio of ten 22×30 inch aquatints (printed by Harlan & Weaver, NY) of scientists’ hand drawn responses to the prompt, “what is your most beautiful mathematical expression?”

As part of a “The Art of the Equation” event at the Yale Gallery on January 22, Daniel Rockmore (Concinnitas project curator), David Mumford (project participant and Fields Medalist), and Lisa Hodermarsky and Molleen Theodore (Gallery curators) took the stage and engaged in a conversation with each other and the audience about the nature of mathematical expressions, beauty, art, and materials.

Rockmore spoke of equations as being beautiful, in part, because they are surprising. Two previously apparently unrelated things (statement and conclusion) are suddenly connected, in a surprising moment of symmetry. Mumford personalized the sentiment, adding that the moment of connection/discovery is stirring. But when asked “but is it art?” he paused…and admitted that he is puzzled. True, there is clear evidence of the hand of the artist/scientist in the prints exhibited. (Indeed, I was struck by the range of styles–from bold expressive and confident marks to thoughtful quiet and light marks. And yet everyone was very aware of the frame edges and composed carefully, regardless of the characteristics of each stroke). But he seemed reluctant to definitively call it art–or perhaps he was reluctant to self-identify as an artist?

Honestly, the distinction between “Is it beautiful?” and “Is it art?” wasn’t initially of interest to me. I came to the lecture to learn and think about the idea of specific mathematical expressions as things of beauty. Whether or not they should be classified as fine art wasn’t my central concern. Yet Hodermarsky’s remarks on the idea of equations as a thought process made visible through universal symbols resonated with me. Rockmore added that the prints in the exhibit allow for different interpretations. Some viewers can’t not stop and read the equation, others simply can’t read it. But it remains a visceral visual experience shaped by the viewer’s cultural baggage nonetheless.

The exquisite production value of the aquatints and the very act of displaying them on the walls of the Yale Gallery certainly helped to stack the deck towards art. But I wonder, what about the idea of a formula spontaneously written and destined to be erased? If these framed mathematical expressions are art, are the same symbols, written by the same hands on a classroom chalkboard for an audience of students also art?

I’m more inclined than ever to say “yes.” Particularly after assistant professor of mathematics Asher Auel stood and spoke about the material of choice for mathematicians: chalk. He reached into his pocket and retrieved 3 pieces of chalk wrapped in a tissue. And went on to describe the specific characteristics of each type (from standard-issue Crayola to the coveted and rare vintage alpha white line from Weber Costello Company to a premium stick from Japan). I’ve only ever heard artists talk with such reverence and familiarity with their medium. But perhaps more importantly, the very idea that the act of drawing equations with a consciously chosen medium that controls the style and pace at which the symbols are created–and the idea that those universal symbols are a visual shorthand for communicating a larger concept–well, to my mind, that equates to “art.” Not to say that it’s all beautiful.

For more on the topic, see “Beauty in Math and Art Activate Same Brain Area” from Scientific American MIND

For a peek at all ten prints and artist statements, click here to see a digital catalog made available by the Greg Kucera Gallery.