Monday, July 20, 2009

A Pythagorean temple

The Nott Memorial pictured above is one of the mathematical highlights of the early morning walking tours I'll be leading for members of the New York City Math Teacher Circle who are coming to hold a problem-solving immersion workshop at Union College next week.

Here's a description of some of the mathematical symbolism employed by Edward Tucker Potter, the architect who designed the Nott:

Potter seems to explore symbolism to discover and be fascinated with proportionalities, among these the ad quadratum, the Golden Section (the ratio of 1:1.618), and the significant yet delicate positioning of hexalphas and pentalphas, using Victorian-Gothic as the vehicle of his expression. The nature of his work may be viewed as more symptomatic of an even larger and all-encompassing plan -- that of the universe as an orderly, integrated macrocosm. Potter had a systematic, Pythagorean approach to his architecture...

A central element of the Pythagorean philosophy is that there is a profound numerical order, unity, and harmony in the Universe (the macrocosmos) as symbolized by the icosahedron and the hexalpha, and in man (the microcosmos) as a refinement, a distillation, an analog of this grand plan.

The hexalpha probably emerged most strongly as a symbol of harmonious duality and in particular the ten primary contrasting qualities of Pythagoras -- the limited and unlimited, odd and even, male and female, one and the many, right and left, rest and motion, straight and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, and the square and the oblong. In essence, the hexalpha and icosahedron represent the union of complementary forces.

In this light, it is highly appropriate for the dome of the Nott Memorial at a college called Union to bear its array of hexalphas and pentalphas. The Nott Memorial may be viewed as a Pythagorean Temple of the Muses and a beacon leading us toward the Truth and the Good.

More information about the mathematical elements in the Nott is available in Decoding the Nott Memorial, the source for the quote above.

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