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Posted: Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2012

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John Syme

John Syme graduated from Davidson College with a bachelor of arts degree in French in 1985. He worked as a general-assignment reporter at The Winston-Salem Journal, where he later wrote freelance travel stories during his first solo cross-country road trip in the summer of 1989. He worked as a copywriter at a Charlotte advertising agency, as a research translator at a French nutrition center outside Paris, and as a politics and education newspaper reporter in Charlotte. He returned in 2001 to Davidson, where he is senior writer, alumni editor and instigator of the "Road Trip 2009" blog, which evolved into his current blog, "Daybook Davidson."

I'm a generalist, by nature and by education (B.A., French, Davidson College). But working here as a writer affords me the opportunity to go deep, too, to visit a classroom now and then and, as the Interweb wonks say, drill down. For instance, one day recently I visited a math classroom—I know, right!—to explore the math of art. Or maybe it was the art of math. Here are 300 words I wrote about that.

The walls of Chambers 3068 are a blank canvas crying for help.

For art.

Professor and Chair of Mathematics Donna Molinek obliges, instructing her “Exploring Math and Art” students to post their homework on bare bulletin boards. A jumble of nimble confusion ensues, scholarly bodies climbing around each other, academic puppies on a roll.

One student’s assignment is on a laptop. Others appear as printouts, as found art, as computer-generated imagery, as magazine tear sheets, even doodled on notebook paper. The designs are circular, repetitive, some simple, some complex.

Yet it is not artistic quality this class gathers to praise. It is the mathematical specifications and relationships buried there that are of interest.

“This is the basis of arithmetic,” Molinek declares. She takes questions and lobs answers on the fly, gleefully barreling onward, upward, outward in her classroom trajectory. “I made that up.” Chuckle, chuckle. “I’ll tell you later.” Try to keep up.

“When a finite figure has rotational symmetry of order n and no mirror-image symmetry, we call the resulting set of symmetries the ‘cyclic’ group of order n, or ‘cn,’” Molinek explains. If it does have mirror-image symmetry as well as rotational, she continues, then it’s in the “di-hedral” group, or “dn.”


There follows a sequence of exercises, of one rotational or “flipping” operation and then another on specific designs, exploring various symmetries and relationships and ultimately translating all these rotational results into equations like “FR^2FRRF=F.”

All that to come back to F?

Slowly, viscerally, mathematically, it dawns that, yes, arithmetic is indeed an elegant expression of universal principles at work. In art. In everything. “The circle of life.”

“You can always come back to nothing,” Molinek says.

The bell rings. The homework comes down.

Hakuna matata.

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