Art – Mathematics

Melencolia I by Albrecht DürerWhile looking around the New Yorker for the lytico-bodig article, I came across another story about the Chudnovsky brothers, an eccentric duo of mathematicians featured in a long New Yorker story from 1992, The Mountains of Pi, by Richard Preston. It was a fascinating article about their quest to find patterns in the irrational number pi and how they constructed a supercomputer in their living room to aid in their search. I read Mountains of Pi several years ago and enjoyed it thoroughly.

In the current issue of the New Yorker, Richard Preston revisits the Chudnovsky brothers ensconced in their new digs in Brooklyn. This time around, the mathematicians are working on a new project, assembling high-resolution digital photos of the Unicorn Tapestries into a single, enormous image of each tapestry.

The Unicorn Tapestries are a priceless example of medieval art, depicting the hunt and capture of a unicorn. I saw the tapestries several years ago at the Cloisters, a medieval art museum run by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a humbling experience. They are humongous wall hangings, over 500 years old and incredibly rich in detail and skill. It boggles the mind thinking about how difficult it must have been to weave them.

In 1998, the Cloisters took the tapestries down for renovation and during the process a complete series of digital photos was taken of both the front and the back of each tapestry. But combing the images together into a cohesive single image of each tapestry was beyond the skill of the people at the Met. A chance conversation brought the Chudnovskys into the picture, along with their custom designed supercomputer at New York’s Polytechnic University in Brooklyn. It took them awhile, but they were able to stitch together the images from The Capture of the Unicorn into one large image. The story is a fascinating combination of art and mathematics.