The Art of Science

Or is it the science of art?

May 27, 2019  |  by Anush Ter-Khachatryan

In an age where computers make music and vending machines dispense poetry (seriously), the marriage of art and science is stronger than ever. But their courtship started long ago.

Ada Lovelace, the poetic programmer

In the 19th century, the English mathematician Ada Lovelace, wrote the first algorithm for computation, which eventually sparked the birth of the modern computer. She was obsessed with exploring mathematical capacities through poetry, something she called “poetic imagination.” Was that imagination the outcome of her peculiar parenting — her father being the rockstar of 19th century poetry Lord Byron and her mother a “walking calculation,” as Byron put it? Or was it the algorithm she was already born with?

Literature in the Numberland

Fascinated by Alice in Wonderland, Queen Victoria eagerly anticipated the next work by Carroll. She wasn’t expecting An Elementary Treatise on Determinants.

When he wasn’t tweedleduming and designing a cat with a mischievous grin, Carroll was transforming mathematical theorems into storylines. Such an example is the Mad Hatter’s eternal tea party, where the fourth party member Time is always absent and Mad Hatter repeats his nonsensical riddle: “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

It’s a masterful recreation of Hamiltonian theory of quaternions, which calculates space and time rotations algebraically, by a system based on four terms, the fourth term producing three-dimensional rotation. Just as quaternions depend on the fourth term, the tea-party also depends on the fourth absent member Time to resolve the everlasting tea-time. 

The proportions of human soul

The application of mathematics in the visual arts reached its heights during Renaissance with the introduction of perspective. It wasn’t luck, but rather deliberate calculations of geometry and math, that tricked the eye to travel into the paint.

On the frontline was Albrecht Dürer, in his endless study of human proportions and perspectives. In his 1514 engraving Melencolia I, he made sure to include the polyhedron, the magic square, which later was used in applied mathematics. Dürer was convinced that true beauty lies in mathematical proportions and he devoted 20 years of his life to develop his fundamental treatise Four Books on Human Proportion.

Beethoven’s mathematical ear

After the famous fall which cost him his hearing, Beethoven began to use mathematics as his new ear. 

To compose his Fifth Symphony, for example, Beethoven used his intuitive understanding of spatial symmetry, which crystallographers call the Space Group of symmetry transformations. In other words, the 4-note beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth reads like the first chapter of a textbook on group theory, while the symphony is shaped like an actual diamond crystal.


Anush Ter-Khachatryan is a writer living in Yerevan.