RI’s ‘Forbidden crystal symmetry in mathematics and architecture’ what’s not to like?

pw_theatre_3000_1_1_920b8866c7083e8RI event ‘Forbidden crystal symmetry in mathematics and architecture’

Yesterday evening I went to an event at The Royal Institution (London) for the first time. When I was doing my MA at the Royal College of Art, the lovely artist/lecturer  Jo Stockham mentioned that I would probably enjoy the RI. It has since then been my intention to explore this amazing place and Professor Sir Roger Penrose’s talk became my motivation when I read the following abstract:

It is a rigorous mathematical theorem that the only crystallographic symmetries are 2-fold, 3-fold, 4-fold, and 6-fold  Yet, since the 1970s 5-fold, 8-fold, 10-fold and 12-fold “almost” symmetric patterns have been exhibited, showing that such crystallographically forbidden symmetries are mathematically possible, these deviating from exact symmetry by an arbitrarily small amount. All these symmetries have now been shown to be possessed by certain actual quasi-crystalline materials. Such patterns are often beautiful to behold, possessing many surprising and unusual features. Designs based on these patterns have now been used in many buildings throughout the world.

A novel version of such a pattern (“Penrose tiling”) appears in the approach to the main entrance of the new Mathematics building in Oxford, to be officially opened in early October 2013. This is constructed from several thousand diamond-shaped granite tiles of just two different shapes, decorated simply with circular arcs of stainless steel. The matching of the tiles forces them into an overall pattern which never repeats itself, and brings out a surprising novel non-repeating pattern of circular rings and other features, exhibiting remarkable aspects of 5-fold and 10-fold symmetry.

I am not a mathematician in any form or shape, but I am constantly curious, and I do enjoy to stretch my mind. I arrived, and took a seat next to a female retired mathematician and an elder male architect, who found it astounding that I was there not knowing anything about mathematics; in a kind-of how could an artist ever understand! To my surprise, the subject matter was delivered in an extremely accessible way and to my visual thinking mind it seemed logic and intriguing. This was when I noticed the architect was asleep and being in danger of falling towards me.

Sir Penrose illustrated what the above abstract was saying via his hand drawn overhead projector notes, which gave a lovely intimate glimpse into the man behind the maths. This was his way of working, drawing – using his hand and not the computer – to think and find solutions. He mentioned Johannes Kepler and his  ‘Harmonices Mundi’ (1619) as a source of inspiration or maybe more as a reference point when new patterns seemed familiar and a sense of déjà vu appeared.

What I do take away more than anything from yesterday’s talk was the sense of possibility. At the end when questions were invited and one could feel Penrose’s answer would be a clear ‘no’, he would start with the no and then end up having made it into a ‘possible one day but not likely’. That is when science gives me a buzz; there are so much we haven’t thought of yet!

I am sure to visit the RI again soon.

About Andrea Jespersen

I am a visual artist with a practice that explores how conceptual deliberations and the hand made can co-exist. Check my website for documentation of artworks.
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