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Mathematical Art and Community: Frank Farris’ MAA Spotlight

Mathematical art and community have always been an interest for our July Member Spotlight, Frank Farris, PhD, Santa Clara University Mathematics and Computer Science Chair. From 2001- 2005 and again in 2009, he served as the Editor of Mathematics Magazine. This work led him to serve on the Council of Publications and Communications at the Mathematical Association of America (MAA).

To learn about Frank’s journey into mathematics, listen to his response in the Count Me In Podcast.

MAA: How has the MAA impacted you?

Frank Farris (FF): The MAA has given me a lot. When I think about the lifelong connections that the MAA has provided me with, I just don't see how I could do without them. They are vital to me. This is a very important thing in my life that, over the course of a long career, I became connected and then stayed connected. So it's really important to me, but it is through connection, and it's not so much about learning about particular mathematical things, but learning about mathematical culture and what's going on in mathematics.

It makes me feel like I'm part of a large community that's trying to make the mathematical community better.

Frank Farris

MAA: What was some of the best advice you've received?

FF: Well, way back in it, could it have been 1986 or 87, my mentor, Jerry Alexanderson (MAA Gung and Hu Award winner, former president and secretary of the MAA, and former Mathematics Magazine editor), said that I should be a member of the MAA. Being advised to connect was really important advice to me. I'm grateful for that.

When I was in graduate school, there was a mathematician named Daniel Kan. He was a very interesting man who was also a Holocaust survivor teaching at MIT. He said, ‘You must pursue what intrigues you; nothing else will work.’ You have to find out what you're really interested in and then follow that.

It took me a long career, but I went through a period of not really being happy with what I was doing in mathematics and then found that I was really intrigued by all of the issues that come up around mathematical art.

MAA: How do you stay motivated to continue working in mathematics? So much has changed. 

FF: I seek out the people who want to hear about and see what I produce. There is a community called BAAM! (Bay Area Art and Math); it helps just to know that there's a group of people---mathematicians, artists, and engineers---who want to talk about mathematical art.

I think it's important for any young person to listen to that voice of what intrigues them, but then find out other people who might also be intrigued.

MAA: Aside from your position as Chair of Mathematics and Computer Science, what have you most recently been working on?

FF: I have a co-worker in place as summer chair, and so I'm freed from some of the issues about incoming students over the summer. I am working on other matters, like onboarding new faculty.

I’ve also had the chance to do some beautiful mathematical work.

It's really just a piece of mathematical art. It's a very interesting shape. One of these bands is made from pieces of circles. So this is called a Piecewise Circular Curve.

I've been working in mathematical art for a long time, and as I was traveling to Norway, I had the idea for this project, and I could almost see how these things would work. It starts with taking a sphere and tracing a curve on the sphere. But then to think of the points on those curves as tangent vectors to another curve, and then that curve sort of zooms up out of the sphere, and those are the curves that you're seeing.

This is a very graceful and beautiful shape that exemplifies symmetry, which is something that I love.

I was on vacation, and my mind kept saying, ‘What do these things look like?’

I felt so delighted that it turned out to be something that is beautiful and something that I could build on. There's another geometric situation where this kind of shape comes up. I've really been delighted by the number of times in my life when something comes to me; I use the word grace to describe that. I didn't create this. I didn't invent it. It came to me, and I'm very grateful.

MAA: Who/what inspires you?

FF: Mathematics itself inspires me. It's that these situations that I'm looking at are inherently interesting and beautiful enough. And as if they're speaking to me from another realm. That's a very weird thing to say, but I really take a lot of inspiration just directly from the subject itself.

MAA: What, if any, advice would you give to those newer in the mathematics field who are seeking community, belonging, and being seen?

FF: I am what's called a performing introvert, and I'm really able to be center stage. I acted and then sang on stage. Although I can adapt, I know that that costs me. So I know that I'm an introvert, and I need to refresh myself with time on my own.

The advice for introverts is to just keep showing up, find the spaces with the people who are doing things that intrigue them, and just keep coming.