Philip Ording

BA, PhD, Columbia University. Research interests in geometry, topology, and the intersection of mathematics with the arts. Mathematical consultant to New York-based artists since 2003. Currently writing a compendium of mathematical style to be published by Princeton University Press. SLC, 2014–

Course Information

Current undergraduate courses

Discrete Mathematics: A Gateway to Advanced Mathematics

Fall

Your voice will produce a mostly continuous sound signal when you read this sentence out loud. As it appears on the page, however, the previous sentence is composed of 79 distinct characters, including letters and a punctuation mark. Measuring patterns—whether continuous or discrete—is the raison d'être of mathematics, and different branches of mathematics have developed to address the two sorts of patterns. Thus, a course in calculus treats motion and other continuous rates of change. In contrast, discrete mathematics addresses problems of counting, order, computation, and logic. We will explore these topics and their implications for mathematical philosophy and computer science. The form of this seminar will be that of a (mathematical) writing workshop. We will work collaboratively to identify and reproduce the key formal elements of mathematical exposition and proof as they appear in both the discrete mathematics literature and in each other’s writing. This seminar is designed for students interested in advanced mathematical study and highly recommended for students with an interest in computer science, law, logic, or philosophy.

Faculty
Related Cross-Discipline Paths

First-Year Studies: The New Elements: Mathematics and the Arts

This seminar will explore the bearing of modern mathematical ideas on 20th-century creative and performing arts. Euclid’s collection of geometric propositions and proofs, entitled The Elements, is an archetype of logical reasoning that, since antiquity, has had a broad influence beyond mathematics. The non-Euclidean revolution in the 19th century initiated a radical re-conception of not only geometry but also mathematics as a whole. We will investigate, on the one hand, the role of “math as muse,” a source of new forms of expression that include, for example, non-Euclidean geometry, the fourth dimension, set theory, functions, networks, topology, and chance. On the other hand, we will study “math as maker” and the artists and writers who, intentionally or unintentionally, adopt modern mathematical attitudes in an attempt to break with the past. While the seminar will not aim for a comprehensive survey of the entire last century, we will investigate a sequence of case studies, including: Russian Suprematist art; the Bauhaus school in Western European architecture and design; Serialism in Western music; OuLiPo, “a secret laboratory of literary structures” in postwar French literature; and postmodern dance in 1960-70s North America, among others. This course assumes no particular expertise with mathematics or cultural history. Seminar readings, guest speakers, and a program of art and performance viewings will establish a basis for investigating the relevance of fundamental mathematical concepts to modern literature and the arts. One of the primary goals of the seminar is to assess the variety of ways that mathematics and the arts pose and address questions. Conference projects in the fall will focus on one of the elements of modern mathematics; in the spring, on an individual artist, composer, writer, or dancer whose work reflects a mathematical imagination.

Faculty

Topology

Spring

First known as the geometry of position, topology is the study of spatial properties that do not depend on distance or angle measure. Such properties include order, continuity, configuration, boundary, and dimension. Gottfried Leibniz was probably the first mathematician to recognize the need for such methods when he wrote, “I am not content with algebra, in that it yields neither the shortest proofs nor the most beautiful constructions of geometry…we need yet another kind of analysis…which deals directly with position, as algebra deals with magnitude.” The unusual task of measuring space without distance, let alone coordinates, is achieved through the language of sets; and the seminar is primarily concerned with so-called point-set topology. Today, the field of topology is an active area of mathematics research, and we will discuss the questions that motivate its various branches, including geometric, algebraic, and differential topology. Conference work will be allocated to clarifying course ideas and exploring additional mathematical topics.

Faculty
Related Cross-Discipline Paths

Previous courses

Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications

Spring

In pre-college mathematics courses, we learned the basic methodology and notions of algebra. We appointed letters of the alphabet to abstractly represent unknown or unspecified quantities. We discovered how to translate real-world (and often complicated) problems into simple equations whose solutions, if they could be found, held the key to greater understanding. But algebra does not end there. Abstract algebra examines sets of objects (numbers, matrices, polynomials, functions, ideas) and operations on these sets. The approach is typically axiomatic: One assumes a small number of basic properties, or axioms, and attempts to deduce all other properties of the mathematical system from these. Such abstraction allows us to study, simultaneously, all structures satisfying a given set of axioms and to recognize both their commonalties and their differences. Specific topics to be covered include groups, actions, isomorphism, symmetry, permutations, rings, fields, and applications of these algebraic structures to questions outside of mathematics.

Faculty

Beyond Perspective: Mathematics and Visual Art

Fall

For many, the experience of doing mathematics is dominated by formulas, order, and following rules. It might come as a surprise that some mathematicians (especially in so-called “pure mathematics”) view what they do as more of an art than a science. For example, Georg Cantor, a leading mathematician of the early modern era, claimed that the “essence of mathematics lies entirely in its freedom.” This course will explore similarities between mathematical and contemporary art practices. We will study a variety of ways that mathematics and art pose questions. We will also investigate the intersection of the two disciplines, including selected applications of mathematics to art-making (from the Renaissance on) and the presence of modern mathematical attitudes in contemporary art (from the historical avant-garde through the present). This course assumes no particular expertise with mathematics, studio art, or art history. Seminar readings, guest speakers, and a program of art viewings will establish a basis for investigating the relevance of fundamental mathematical concepts to contemporary art. These concepts will include axiom, proof, structure, and symmetry, among others. Conference work will involve more in-depth study of individual artists, art works, mathematical ideas, or student work in mathematics and/or art.

Faculty

Strange Universes: An Introduction to Non-Euclidean Geometries

Spring

If you draw two straight lines on a piece of paper, it’s not difficult to keep them from crossing. Imagine, however, that the lines extended in both directions off the page and without end. Do these hypothetical lines cross? Surprisingly, this mundane question goes to the heart of our modern conception of space. Your experience might suggest that the lines will cross unless they head off the edge of the page at exactly the same angle. In that case we call the lines parallel; and this is the answer Euclid asserts with his fifth (or “parallel”) postulate of the Elements. Roughly 2,000 years later, mathematicians came to the shocking realization that lines need not obey the parallel postulate. The resulting non-Euclidean geometries were so unexpected to the mathematicians who first conceived of them that one, János Bolyai, remarked, “Out of nothing I have created a strange new universe.” This course will explore the alternatives to Euclidean geometry that first appeared in the 18th century. These include hyperbolic, spherical, projective geometry, as well as more idiosyncratic geometries that we will devise together. Our exploration of these strange universes will be aided by visualizations that include drawing, computer graphics animation, and video game technology. Throughout, we will discuss the impact of the non-Euclidean revolution on astronomy, philosophy, and culture.

Faculty