Sensual Mathematics

I’m not sure why I hadn’t been aware of it before today, but documentary film maker Ekaterina Eremenko has made the film Colors of Math.  (Its Russian title is Sensual Mathematics)

I was happy to see that the work was supported and partly funded by my alma mater, The Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University.   Science Friday reported on the film in July, noting that it had not been taken up by an American distributor.  Its US premier was at the Imagine Science Film Festival this past October.

The film’s synopsis is given in this way:

To most people math appears abstract, mysterious. Complicated. Inaccessible. But math is nothing but a different language to express the world. Math can be sensual. Math can be tasted, it smells, it creates sound and color. One can touch it – and be touched by it…

You can get a sense for the feel of the action and the character of the perspective from the trailer, which is almost six minutes long. These are some of the (perhaps paraphrased) observations that I particularly liked when I watched it:

…you put together all the ingredients and you mix and you mix and you wait for the chemical reaction….

At these sharp ends, the leaves don’t want to be flat

At every level even an abstract theory is some sort of space.  Every notion and every action is about the interaction of geometric objects.

The film seems to want to capture something fundamental about mathematics.  It is a view of mathematics that, despite all of our efforts, is still not very clear.  And this fairly intimate look at it certainly contributes to the portrait of mathematics as natural, embedded in us, and in the world, more deeply than we have yet appreciated.  Our senses, after all, build structure from the flood of interactions between our bodies and the world. And Colors of Math ties mathematics pretty tightly to the senses.  Getting a feel for how this translation, from fleshy to symbolic, might be happening has been the primary focus of Mathematics Rising.   Perhaps learning mathematics can be thought of as exercising the hidden organizing processes inherent in the body (or the brain). Some time back, these organizing actions somehow became part of our awareness, when we began to make symbolic images of our experience – in pictures, tallies, and clocks.  Once given attention, they emerged further, themselves interacting, growing in substance, extending the senses.  Maybe they are  even turning the senses inside out.




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