Mathematician Wins 2006 Science and Engineering Challenge

History has shown that math and art have a way of bleeding into one another to produce spectacular results. These cousin crafts have found new ways to relate in recent years, largely due to the advent of the computer.
In a masterful display of skill and artistic talent, adjunct professor Richard Palais and visual editor Luc Benard demonstrated the caliber of artwork that can be generated using a computer. They created a photo-like image of five famous mathematical surfaces atop a glossy wooden table. This graphic won them first place in the illustration category of the 2006 Science and Engineering Challenge, which is sponsored by the National Science Foundation and ‘Science’ magazine.
The program that created the shapes was the result of a project undertaken by Palais. ‘I started developing a program called ‘3D-Xplor Math,” Palais said. ‘[The program] is essentially an interactive mathematical museum. It creates all kinds of mathematical objects and displays them on a computer screen very easily and quickly.’
This program had been in the works for over a decade before Palais made the program available over the Internet.
Benard, who lives in Canada, later downloaded it and found that the shapes it rendered could be used in an artistic setting. Benard’s first challenge was finding a way to translate the data that created these mathematical models into a format that was compatible with commercial 3-D software. After receiving help from Paul Bourke of the University of Western Australia, Benard accomplished this task and then set out to create what became the award-winning graphic.
The first encounter between Palais and Benard was via the Internet when Benard sent Palais a sample of what he had done.
‘When he first sent it to me,’ Palais recounted, ‘I was unbelieving.’
Benard had taken the shapes and graphically transformed them into a lustrous glass surface then placed them onto a table that was also computer-generated.
‘Science always interested me,’ Benard explained. ‘I read lots of scientific literature. Often I see graphics that could be more artistic. I always find mathematical objects beautiful. Sometimes, strangely, they are so organic.’
Palais was so impressed with the file he received that he worked with Benard to make 3D-Xplor Math more compatible with the work that Benard was doing.
It did not even occur to the pair that their work might be award-worthy until Palais served on a panel for the National Science Foundation and a fellow judge saw his work and suggested he submit it.
A few months later, Palais was pleased to hear a message from the National Science Foundation notifying him that he and Benard had won an award. The following day, Palais got the news that they had actually won first prize.
‘Even then we didn’t know until the day ‘Science’ appeared that we were going to appear on the cover,’ Palais said.
While the award comes with no monetary payout, it does offer a brief encounter with fame. The image received so much publicity that it caused a sharp spike in the activity on their server since Internet users increasingly downloaded the 3D-Xplor Math program. This server usually gets enough activity to use about half a gigabyte of bandwidth per day. After ‘Science’ came out on Sunday, the amount of bandwidth needed to keep up with the demand increased to about 24 times that amount.
While Palais doesn’t seem to mind being famous for a week, the acquisition of notoriety isn’t what motivates him to work on 3D-Xplor Math.
‘Mathematicians have always needed to see the complex concepts they work with in order to reason with them effectively,’ Palais told ‘Science.’ ‘In the past, they conjured up mental images as best they could but the wonders of computer graphics provide them with far more detailed pictures to think with.’
Palais welcomes the growing trend of computer-generated mathematical shapes meeting art.
‘It’s only really this last four or five years that there’s been a sort of cross-fertilization between mathematical visualizations and graphic art. I am very enthusiastic, very excited. Mathematicians on the one hand and scientists on the other hand work together to create this whole new kind of art form.’