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Mathematics and the Nude: an application of the Catastrophe Theory

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Aurélie Papon.

Catastrophe Theory was largely created by the brilliant and rather extraordinary Fields Medal-winning French mathematician Rene Thom around 1970. It soon gained a high profile in the public imagination and has since found many applications across the sciences and engineering. Some applications – such as those in physics (optics and wave mechanics) and engineering (stability theory of elastic structures, ship stability and computer vision) – may be described as orthodox, but others (in biological morphogenesis and the proposed applications in the social sciences, for example) have been more speculative.

Currently the theory is enjoying considerable success in the analysis and understanding of gravitational lensing in the distant reaches of the Universe, with profound consequences. After looking at this and other scientific applications, this lecture will head off in a different direction, for it is not widely known that the theory also applies to a great deal of art. The lecturer hopes to demonstrate that even a basic understanding of Thom’s mathematics can change one’s appreciation of a great deal of both traditional and modern art, with a particular emphasis on the nude.

Allan McRobie is a Reader in the Department of Engineering at Cambridge. He is a structural engineer with specialist interests in dynamics and stability. It was during a life drawing class at the Department, (classes that Allan had introduced there to broaden the horizons of the Engineering students) that he first recognised the strong unifying resonances that exist between his lecture notes on stability theory and the shapes in front of his eyes. He was awarded a Fellowship in 2003 by NESTA (National Endowment of Science, Technology and the Arts) to explore the connections between engineering and mathematics on the one hand, and the emotions, imagination and the humanities on the other. In 2006, he was awarded a Pilkington Prize for teaching excellence.

Warning: this talk contains mathematics, art and nudity. Please do not attend if any offend.

This talk is part of the Newnham College Speaker Series series.

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