Play is the highest form of research – an Albert Einstein quote – is prominently displayed on the Finnish Science Centre Heureka website. It’s hard to think of a more apt phrase with which the fabled physicist could have spurred on the makers of the Sensual Mathematics exhibition, which opens at Heureka in May.
The exhibition takes the viewer to the nexus of a weave of mathematical sculptures. The high-ceilinged space will be filled with installations made by student teams.
The course Crystal Flowers in Halls of Mirrors: Mathematics meets Art and Architecture culminates in the Sensual Mathematics expo. The multidisciplinary course was arranged for the third time this spring – now with a fresh difficulty multiplier through the inclusion of this Heureka cooperation. The prototypes must be shaped into exhibition objects, which can bear scrutiny.
Even the name of the course underlines its multidisciplinarity. Completion of the broad-reaching combination of mathematics, art and architecture earns students 15 credits, and this year’s course attracted over forty students, including both Bachelor’s degree holders from the artistic side as well as postgraduate maths students.
In March, the participants are still working on their prototypes and ripples of conversation fill the foyer of the Design Factory at the Otaniemi campus. A box-full of beads familiar from children’s handicrafts has been spread across one table, while a second team's heads hover above a paper cube on another tabletop. Wooden rulers slash the air in the kitchen and another student team is busy watching a YouTube video on a phone.
A six-strong team going by the name of Wallpaper Connoisseurs is working on the glass beads. Their work deals with surface structure on the basis of a mathematical formula. The working title of the structure-examining installation is Floating Something.
When I ask who heads the team, the group’s eyes turn to Mateo Rendon.
“He’s our maths guy,” they say with a chuckle. The other members of the team are students of electronics, the Media Lab, architecture, chemistry and materials science hailing from India, China, Colombia and Finland.
Mateo Rendon praises the rewarding and fun nature of their multicultural and -disciplinary teamwork.
“When I studied in Colombia, I felt that maths could be quite boring. I’d attend lectures, solve problems and do everything by myself. This course has taught me a lot about sharing my thoughts with a group. As a mathematics student, I feel like it’s my duty to share all my knowledge on the subject with the group.”
Architecture student Taneli Härmä shares a similar sentiment.
“In my studies, I’ve become familiar with having a problem that needs to be solved. Now we’ve more or less been told to do what we want with very little restrictions on our work.”
For Härmä, the Crystal Flowers course is the first opportunity to study in an international team whose members have entirely different academic backgrounds.
Knots and origami
The lecturer in charge of the Crystal Flowers course, Kirsi Peltonen, believes in group work.
“When we get a chemistry student to tackle a specific problem together with an art student, both have to look at the situation from a slightly altered viewpoint and listen to each other’s opinions.”
Mo Ziwei introduces herself as a fashion student. What on earth is a student, who came from Beijing to Aalto last autumn, searching for in a mathematics-based course whose theme is low dimension topology?
“For me, this course is one of a kind, working with people from such a diverse group. I think science people have a totally different perspective than fashion people. In fashion, we tend to focus on products and business, and it is sometimes very stressful. Now, I am working with mathematicians and architects, and it feels like I’ve gained my youth back. And I think this will definitely make me a better fashion designer.”
Introducing a strong research-oriented approach to teaching is a key point for Kirsi Peltonen.
“Not everyone needs to calculate, but things that could not be approached and explored through mathematics are few and far between.”
The course may be the first time students, who are familiar with theoretical studies, get to tackle a problem using a hands-on approach.
“Among other things, we have been making various knots, folds and origami during the spring. The students use their own hands to craft concrete models, objects for appreciation.”
Play is the highest form of research.
The Sensual Mathematics exhibition from 9 May 2017 onwards at the Finnish Science Centre Heureka, Kuninkaalantie 7, Tikkurila, Vantaa. heureka.fi
This article is originally published in the Aalto University Magazine issue 19 (issuu.com), April 2017.