A Colorful History of Math

Walking through the stacks of math books at the Simon Fraser University library, my project partner and I were unimpressed. Our History of Math class had come to SFU for a field trip where we were meant to find books directly related to the final project we had chosen for the block. We spent hours flipping through seemingly ancient texts filled with equations and formulas that we knew were way over our heads. Even books that sounded fascinating when we were researching – things like “Our World in Fractals,” or “The Geometry of Islamic Art,”- turned out to be inaccessible and disappointingly abstract.

Some of our end project, half of an origami Torus
Some of our final project, half of an origami Torus

Each of us had developed a fairly typical aversion to math in high school, and we both chose “History of Math” to satisfy our foundation math credit specifically because we knew it would allow us to integrate some more humanities-type ideas into what we already knew. We discussed this quietly as we walked through the stacks, and realized that if we were going to spend an entire month studying something mathematical, we wanted something that was beautiful, colorful, touchable, and big. Maybe it was just because we had spent the past hours immersed in exactly the opposite of this idea (tiny, theoretical, black and white numbers that would end up as nothing but more of the same), but we felt strongly about the new direction of our project.

"Beautiful Geometry" by Eli Major and Eugen Jost, with the Sierpinski triangle featured on the cover
“Beautiful Geometry” by Eli Major and Eugen Jost, with the Sierpinski triangle featured on the cover

With a little more research, we found a book that seemed like exactly what we wanted – “Beautiful Geometry.” We oohed and aahed as we flipped through the shiny, colorful pages of proof after elegant proof, and admired the typeface and aesthetic appeal of each formula as it was laid out next to a visual explanation. Leaving SFU with “Beautiful Geometry,” and some additional books on the value of manipulatives, origami, and art in learning mathematics, we began to plan our project.

Prepared origami units
Prepared origami units
The makings of an origami torus (a giant donut shape)
The makings of an origami torus (a giant donut shape)

Finally settling on the idea to create some kind of geometric shape out of colored paper, we spent more time researching the math of paper folding and the surprisingly large number of mathematicians who had dedicated most of their lives to understanding the logical principles behind it. The block isn’t over yet, and our constructions aren’t finished, but over the past couple of weeks my project partner and I have been working hard to create just the kind of big, beautiful, colorful math we imagined. It has turned out to be a more complex project than either of us had anticipated, but holding our structures and knowing the ways they work geometrically, the history behind their design, and the ways they express certain formulas has turned out to be unexpectedly rewarding.

A finished dodecahedron
A finished dodecahedron

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