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Notes from a Davidson classroom

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By John Syme

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, as scholarly bodies climb around each other.

One student’s assignment is on a laptop. Others appear as printouts, as found art, as computer-generated imagery, as magazine tear sheets, even 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. “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 results into equations like “FR2FRRF=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. And everywhere else.

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

The bell rings. The homework comes down.

Done.

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