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November 14, 2009, 2:30 PM

Mathematics and Beauty

Participants: Eva Brann, Brian Greene, Mario Livio, Barry Mazur, Elaine Scarry

Mathematics is, in essence, about understanding. But the subject is also perceived by mathematicians to be beautiful. How necessary is it for us to understand a concept in order to consider it beautiful as well? Take the example of "negative numbers," a concept viewed as ugly by at least one 16th century mathematician, and eschewed by many, but now generally considered natural, elegant, necessary. To what extent is our aesthetic evolution (developing a love for negative numbers) dependent upon our epistemological evolution (developing an understanding of them)? Could the dependence also work the other way? Are these evolutions even separable from one another? This roundtable will explore questions about the relationship between aesthetics and epistemology in mathematics and in other sciences.

This event, along with the October 17 roundtable Mathematics and Religion, is made possible by a generous grant from the John Templeton Foundation.

Eva Brann is a member of the senior faculty at St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, where she has taught for fifty years. Her recent books include The Ways of Naysaying; What, Then, Is Time?; The World of the Imagination: Sum and Substance; and The Past-Present, a volume of essays. Brann's long history of academic posts and honors includes fellowships with the NEH and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Brian Greene is co-director of Columbia University's Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Phyics (ISCAP), and is leading a research program applying superstring theory to cosmological questions. He is widely recognized for a number of groundbreaking discoveries in the field of superstring theory, including the co-discoveries of mirror symmetry and of topology change. His first book, The Elegant Universe, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction and his most recent book, The Fabric of the Cosmos, was on the New York Times best-seller list. His three-part NOVA special based on The Elegant Universe was nominated for three Emmy Awards and won a Peabody Award, as well as the French Prix Jules Verne Award. With Emmy-award winning journalist Tracy Day, Greene co-founded The World Science Festival, which debuted in 2008.

Mario Livio is a senior astrophysicist and Head of the Office of Public Outreach at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). He was also the Head of the Science Division at STScI. During the past decade, his research has focused on supernova explosions and their use in cosmology to determine the rate of expansion of the universe, and the nature of the "dark energy" that causes the cosmic expansion to accelerate. Livio's book The Golden Ratio won the "Peano Prize" for 2003, and the "International Pythagoras Prize" for 2004, as the best popular book on mathematics. His most recent book, Is God A Mathematician?, discusses what has been dubbed the "unreasonable effectiveness" of mathematics in explaining the universe.

Barry Mazur is Gerhard Gade University Professor at Harvard, where he teaches in the Mathematics Department. He is the author of Imagining Numbers (Particularly the Square Root of Minus Fifteen), and his research interests include number theory, automorphic forms, and related issues in algebraic geometry. He is a winner of the Veblen Prize , the Cole Prize, and the Steele Prize from the American Mathematical Society, and has been elected a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

Elaine Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University, where she teaches in the English department. She is the author of The Body in Pain, On Beauty and Being Just, Dreaming by the Book, and Resisting Representation. In addition to teaching English Literature, she has lectured widely in law and medicine, and gave the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at Yale University. A Guggenheim Fellow, she has been a Fellow at the Getty Research Institute and at the Institute of Advanced Study in Berlin and in Palo Alto.

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.


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