Granite Geek: The Math That Made M.C. Escher-Mania Run Wild

Dec 2, 2014

How big of a deal is M.C. Escher? His work shows up on posters, calendars, comics and this dude's back.
Credit Mulling It Over via Flickr/CC -

M.C. Escher has been all over Manchester lately (or, at least, his work has been). The Currier Museum of Art has been featuring Escher in an exhibit that runs through January 5th. The SEE Science Center has had interactive Escher displays for its visitors, and next week the Science on Tap discussion at the Shaskeen Pub in Manchester looks at the connections between math and science and artists like Escher.

This is all good news to the man known as the Granite Geek, David Brooks of the Nashua Telegraph and Granite His latest column looks at some of the influences that made Escher's work so distinctive.

Escher is one of those artists everybody is kind of familiar with - he shows up on posters, calendars, comics... does that make it more difficult to put an exhibit together about him?

I would have thought so, and as I actually said in my column, I really had very little expectations when I went to the show at the Currier, because I thought everything there was to know about him. I was delighted to find out there was a whole bunch to learn and a whole lot of neat stuff to see.

It's the first art exhibit I've been to that references not one but two major mathematicians. It talks first about George Polya, who is best known to math geeks because he wrote a book called How To Solve It, which discusses the way to approach a mathematics problem. But he also worked hard to categorize tessellations, which are ways to cover the plane, the flat surface, the flat plane - cover it with repeated shapes, with no overlaps and no gaps. And, of course, anybody who knows Escher's work knows that he loves tessellations. He took them and he turned those repeated shapes into people and animals and weird things, and fit them together. That's one of his signature works.

And it also talks about a mathematician who's much less well known - to be honest, I hadn't heard of him. His name is Donald Coxeter, who did a lot of work in non-Euclidean geometry, which is a lot of the stuff that Escher used to do these other kind of really famous work, like the prints showing the monks walking up an infinite staircase, because it goes around in a circle and interacts with itself in impossible ways.

He was born in the late 1800's, and he was a very traditional printmaker - gorgeous stuff, wood block prints and lithographics. And one of the things that turned him into the Escher we all know was he visited the Alhambra, which is a mosque in Spain. And it has lots of gorgeous patterns and tile on it, because Islam does not allow representational art - you can't do faces and things like that. So Islamic artists, for centuries, have been really into patterns and geometric patterns. They've done quite a lot to inspire a lot of mathematicians as well as artists over the years.

There's an example of technology on the march here. What would take Escher lots of work to create is now something we could do in seconds with our smartphones.

He had to do it all by hand, and they show some of the drawings he had to do, and the really complicated calculations he had to do, and the lines he had to draw, and carefully fit in. And now you can do it with software - I'm sure there's free apps for turning your picture or your Christmas tree into a logarithmic spiral or an infinite tessellation. Which is cool, and yet in a way it's kind of too bad, because it takes some of the fun out of it.

I do like that Escher created holiday cards with some of his designs. It sometimes feels like the holidays are becoming endless...

There you go - we're on a giant Mobius strip of happy holidays. You have, like, a month's break in January and then it starts over again. The loop begins again.