Art in the Life of Mathematicians
by Anna Kepes Szemerédi, Editor
Ab Ovo, Budapest, Hungary, 2015
282 pp. Trade, $49.00
Reviewed by Phil Dyke
Straight away one is impressed by this book. It has the look and production values of a coffee table book; glossy, heavy to hold, and extremely well produced. A glance at the front cover confirms that it is published by Ab Ovo for the American Mathematical Society, and the first author in a very impressive list is (Sir) Michael Atiyah, one of the premier mathematicians alive today. The 21 authors are in fact listed alphabetically, but never mind. The purpose of the book is, one supposes encapsulated in the title: A series of eminent mathematicians give an account of how art in its many forms have impacted upon their lives. Two of the inputs are very brief (those by Peter David Lax and Atiyah) and really amount to profound statements about mathematics and art. There is an account of opera that is entirely non mathematical and is a history from the point of view of the mathematician Bela Bollobás. There's personal reflection on life choice: (Sir) Tim Gowers on why he did not choose to be a professional musician and Izabella Laba on the links between mathematics, science and photography as well as other visual arts. The arts reflected here are many and varied. Besides music there's fine art, photography, theatre, dance and even Dadaist philosophy which this reviewer found the hardest to grasp. The chapters on tattoos (with film and theatre) by Edward Frenkel and the stage play by Andrew Granville, Jennifer Granville, and Michael Spencer were a little strange and not entirely convincing as a link between mathematics and theatre or film. There is a discussion on how mathematics can be perceived in terms of beauty and form; this chapter by Enrico Bombieri and Sarah Jones Nelson particularly appeals: It is well written and thought provoking; it is full of interesting links between mathematics and the real world from the familiar Fibonacci sequence to the universality of the Laplacian.
Reading the book one is left in no doubt that rather than being a separate aloof subject, mathematics can be and often is entwined with the arts. The traditional link between mathematics and music is reinforced and the use of mathematics in art through perspective and visual tricks recounted. New links in fields such as photography were not so surprising whereas links through theatre and dance were. There's some architecture, but this reviewer did not notice much if any sculpture.
The usual criticisms can be levelled at books of 276 pages by 21 different authors. There are variations in style, variations in level, etc., but that is the appeal of the book. This is not a book to read from cover to cover, but as its look implies it is a coffee table book good for dipping into and reading in bits. Indeed the last article, assumed to be by Vladimir Voevodsky, contains no words, just a few stunning photographs that say it all.