October 24, 2011

Daniel Shechtman, Israeli scientist has won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Several years ago when I went to space camp in Huntsville, AL, the staff went out of their way to articuluate and provide examples of the many connections between the arts and space education. While I was teaching in the 90’s, two colleagues, one math and one art teacher and I starting looking at and figuring out how to teach fractals. The geometric shape dates back to the 17th century however it wasn’t coined “fractal” until in 1975 when Benoît Mandelbrot named it that. Another math teacher and I worked together, also in the 90’s, to create an integrated unit on tessellations. Artist M.C. Escher never thought of himself as a mathematician as he created tesselations but we know today that the foundation for his creations were strong in the understanding of mathematical concepts.

Once again, the connections between art and math are evident when earlier this month the Nobel Prize in Chemistry went to Daniel Schechtman. When I read this sentence found in the PBS Newshour, Oct. 5, 2011 article entitled What are Quasicrystals, and What Makes Them Nobel-Worthy? I wondered if science and math educators know how many of the terms are found in the visual art curriculum?

Most crystals are composed of a three-dimensional arrangement of atoms that repeat in an orderly pattern. Depending on their chemical composition, they have different symmetries. For example, atoms arranged in repeating cubes have fourfold symmetry. Atoms arranged as equilateral triangles have threefold symmetries. But quasicrystals behave differently than other crystals. They have an orderly pattern that includes pentagons, fivefold shapes, but unlike other crystals, the pattern never repeats itself exactly.

Silver/aluminum quasicrystal

Waterville High School art teacher, Suzanne Goulet, sent me the link to the article on Schechtman which got me to thinking. She suggested I google image search “patterns in Islamic tiles”. At first I didn’t use the “image” in my search, and started reading about Sir Roger Penrose, a mathematical physicist, from Oxford University and the work he was doing in the 1970s. I recalled a book of his tilings that I used to encourage students to find the shapes, patterns, repeated and others in the images. And I read about the Harvard graduate student in physics who traveled to Uzbekistan becasue he was fascinated by the patterns in the 800 year-old buildings and was curious as to how the artisans created them. Lu looked at hundreds of photographs of Islamic architecture and his research landed him an article in Science.

Finally I got to the images and was engrossed in the intracate work of the Islamic Mosaic Design. Just in case you’re looking for a connected unit with visual art and math or science (or both). I suggest you do a google search and expect to go on a journey that will suggest several ideas to broaden your knowledge. It will arm you with ideas to share with classroom teachers, math, chemistry, and/or physics teachers. Using these ideas and concepts can be the vehicle to start brainstorming with your colleagues. Imagine how these ideas might have an impact on engaging some disengaged students in school?!

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