Change of Perspective: How Math Helps Us See the World Differently

For my Wednesday birthday treat I went to The Museum of Mathematics. The Change of Perspective lecture was given by professor Michael Orrison of Harvey Mudd College. At the end he put up a slide with a stanza from a Blake poem:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

After his lecture I really did see and understand those words in a new way. Unfortunately, I saw that my mind still shuts down and refuses to do math. But I had a few real aha moments during his lecture, and was able to apply what he was talking about to my world. I think he would be glad that his point regarding mathematics worked in another setting. It was kinda the whole point.

This lecture was part of a series called Math Encounters, but they have a lot of events there, I see, and one coming up next week involving math, wine, cheese and chocolate.

This is looking through the doors into the museum. The symbol for Pi was used for the door handles.


Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

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4 thoughts on “Change of Perspective: How Math Helps Us See the World Differently

  1. This is from their website: “Mathematics illuminates the patterns and structures all around us.” We humans are programmed to see patterns. But I never thought of math as illuminating them!

    There are SO many things in the world that are interesting, if we just stop to look at them a little. Good for you for treating yourself at a museum. When I was in Paris on ’08, I only had a couple of hours to spend at the Louvre, so I made a bee-line to the few things I wanted to gaze at intently, like Durer’s self portrait, tucked away in a corner. And of course, the Nike of Samothrace, which is hard to miss.

    Have you read any Ruskin, or about Ruskin, and his theory about drawing to get to know the thing you are drawing better? Also, Aristotle said, “What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.” I love it.

  2. I agree with Aristotle. My undergraduate degree is in fine arts, so I’ve taken many drawing and painting classes, and I’m mulling that Ruskin quote over … I think I have to agree, although that would be true of anything that causes you to stop and focus on something longer than you would normally.

    This is making me miss the smells of working with oil paint.

  3. Ruskin gave classes to regular people, not expecting them to become artists or even get good at art, but to help them really see what they were looking at. We just had an exhibition here at the NGC with many of Ruskin’s drawings and it was a treat to walk very slowly around and see what he drew. It’s over now, sorry. 🙁 The poor man suffered from some mental disorders.

    Yes, drawing makes you stop and focus on one thing. I suppose sitting and writing about a thing would have the same, salutary effect, if you mused long enough and wrote slowly and deliberately. But drawing engages the right side of the brain which has a whole different feeling for the observer. My undergrad degree was in art history but I don’t remember much (if any) emphasis on Ruskin. I discovered him later.

  4. It’s amazing how many artists we miss. There’s just so many, I guess. But I can walk through any museum, like the Frick, and still come across artists I’ve never heard of who are clearly well known. I wonder, ‘did I forget them, never hear of them, how is this possible??’

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