Miskatonic University Press

Mathematics and sculpture


I’m reading The Best Writing on Mathematics 2011, edited by Mircea Pitici, catching up on an older instalment of an excellent series. Once I discovered it I made it an annual purchase. Every year there’s a wonderful range of excellent writing about many different aspects of mathematics.

The 2011 book has a chapter by Helaman Ferguson and Claire Ferguson, a married couple. The chapter doesn’t explain how they work together, but Helaman Ferguson is a mathematician and sculptor. One of his major math achievements is the PSLQ algorithm. His gallery shows his sculptures, including Umbilic Torus NC (1987), which he talks about in the chapter, and related pieces.

I’ve never read anything by someone working at such levels of mathematics and art before. Some quotes:

Stone is one of my favorite media. Maybe I choose stone because I was raised by a stone mason who saw beauty in common field stones. My aesthetic choices include geological age, provenance, and subtraction. We learn addition and then we learn subtraction. Subtraction is harder, isn’t it?

Mathematicians are notorious for wanting to do things themselves, prove their own theorems, or prove other people’s theorems without looking at the known proofs. Sculptors tend to the opposite. Most stone-carving today is like a glamorous rock-music recording production; artists with enough money job it out—outsource. The question for me is “job out what?” How do I job out C functions? Negative Gaussian curvature? More important, having done so, what have I learned?

If someone digs up my theorems in stone in a few thousand years, I expect that the excavator can decode what I have encoded and continue celebrating mathematics.

My Fibonacci Fountain contains over 45 tons of billion-year-old Texas granite. It stands 18 feet above the water, supported underwater by concrete and steel to a depth of 14 feet, which is supported in turn by 28 pilings in 40 feet of mud. When the test cores were drilled no bedrock was found.

To do architectural-size sculpture, I find friends with huge cranes.

I used a seventy-ton crane to lift my block off the truck and ease it down into my studio, where I could finally sink my diamonds into it.

Carving uses many tools, my diamond chainsaw principal among them.

My current sculpture studio is in an industrial park in Baltimore, Maryland. My studio volume is 45,500 cubic feet. My “tool box” is a shipping container, which when filled with hand tools weight 14,000 pounds. As I sit here, I feel in my mind my thirteen-ton block of beautiful billion-year-old Texas red granite, and my fingers sweat. This raw granite block compels me to think of the right timeless theorems. The time is now.