WIP with Dr. Axel Gelfert


15th November 2012, Thursday
Tembusu Common Lounge, Level 1


It is a commonplace that mathematical proofs or theorems are beautiful. Even in popular (non-expert) accounts we hear about the ‘beauty’ of a theorem, or the superior ‘elegance’ of one proof over another. An air of mystery surrounds these invocations of ‘mathematical beauty’. But such aesthetic judgments require a considerable familiarity with mathematics. In the philosophy of science and mathematics, this debate has a parallel in discussions about ‘the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences’ (to use the title of an influential paper by Nobel Prize winning mathematical physicist Eugene Wigner).

In this talk I will turn the tables and look at the considerable – yet at the same time elusive – appeal that the aesthetic dimension of mathematics has had on artists and scientists alike. My talk will contribute both to the systematic philosophical discussion and discuss specific examples from the sciences to the arts. I will also emphasise the aesthetics of formats and representations – whether material, diagrammatic or otherwise – and the reality of mathematical, artistic and scientific practice.

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The Tembusu (Fagraea fragrans) is a large evergreen tree in the family Gentianaceae. It is native to Southeast Asia. Its trunk is dark brown, with deeply fissured bark, looking somewhat like a bittergourd. It grows in an irregular shape from 10 to 25m high. Its leaves are light green and oval in shape. Its yellowish flowers have a distinct fragrance and the fruits of the tree are bitter tasting red berries, which are eaten by birds and fruit bats.