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Mathematical Art Exhibition by Frank Farris '77 on Display in Millikan This Semester

"Peach" by Frank Farris '77

"Peach" by Frank Farris '77

Frank Farris '77

The second floor of Millikan Laboratory is home to an exhibition of mathematical art by Frank Farris '77 this semester. The opening reception for the "Seeing Symmetry," which will be on display until summer, is on Thursday, February 7, 4-7 p.m., on the second floor of Millikan (610 N. College Ave., Claremont). Farris is also delivering a public lecture in Millikan 208 on that day at 4:15 p.m.

Farris, an associate professor of mathematics at Santa Clara University, says his interest in the intersection of art and mathematics began as far back as his time at Pomona College. "There were seeds of the interest when I was a student at Pomona, exposed to technology that could draw on a computer screen--very elementary stuff," recalls Farris. "My recent interest arises from a mismatch of something I was teaching and something I knew from my research: The textbook seemed to be saying that the theory of wallpaper patterns was about breaking them down into discrete blocks, whereas my research experience has been to think about things as being made up of continuous waves. I invented new definitions that led me to understand how to make patterns from waves and that led to the art."

The artworks were previously shown at Carleton College, sponsored by the Visualizing the Liberal Arts (Viz) initiative, which addressed the challenges that faculty, staff and students encounter as they create, interpret and employ visual images, media and models. Farris reconnected with Pomona people, including staff from the Pomona College Museum of Art, at the national conference, where Pomona's math department expressed interest in bringing the exhibition to Pomona. Farris notes that Kathy Sheldon, mathematics academic department coordinator, was instrumental in bringing the exhibition to campus.

Farris' art focuses on symmetry and groups in mathematics, which can range from the patterns of wallpaper to the symmetries of a molecule or crystal, and is central in students’ first experiences in the field of abstract algebra, where symmetry is used to illustrate the idea of a group. 

"The collection of images supports new appreciation of math in general and develops a new way to view the world," says Pomona Professor of Mathematics Rick Elderkin, who was a mentor to Farris during his time at Pomona. "The exhibit has lots to offer in terms of appreciation of both art and math, as well as their combined impact, but it can also be enjoyed just as a collection of fun and intriguing images."

Farris' academic interests are the fields of expository mathematics, differential geometry and mathematical economics. "[Expository mathematics] is different from popularization because the effort explains mathematics to other mathematicians," says Farris. "It's more or less unique to mathematics, and this makes people relatively unfamiliar with it. Being editor of Mathematics Magazine taught me a lot about exposition and put me in touch with a huge community of authors from different fields. I've written lots of articles about different aspects of symmetry, but also about mathematical economics and differential geometry."

Farris graduated from Pomona College in 1977 and earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1981. He taught at Brown University and then moved to Santa Clara University in 1984. He edited Mathematics Magazine from 2001 through 2005, and again in 2009. He has been recognized with the Trevor Evans Award for his expository paper "The Edge of the Universe [pdf] " and was later profiled by New Scientist magazine. He remains active in the Mathematical Association of America and is currently the chair of their Council on Publications and Communications. In 2011, Farris was Benedict Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carleton College and is currently on sabbatical at the University of Minnesota.