May 17, 2007


Why Beauty Is Truth: A History of Symmetry. By Ian Stewart. Basic Books. $26.95.

Charles Alston. By Alvia J. Wardlaw. Pomegranate. $35.

      “Mathematics rests on numbers but is not limited to them.” This is one of the deceptively simple statements that University of Warwick mathematics professor Ian Stewart uses to lure readers into Why Beauty Is Truth, a book that is packed with math but that non-mathematicians and even math phobics will find fascinating if they get past the idea that math is just a bunch of numbers. Hence Stewart’s statement. Now, there is plenty of math here, but Stewart presents much of it entertainingly and with reference to other elements of life: positional notation, for instance (the notion that a symbol, such as the number 2, has no fixed meaning independent of its context); or the excesses of the Pythagorean cult “that viewed mathematics, especially number, as the basis of the whole of creation” and believed, among other things, that the number 2 was male and the number 3 female; or the way in which the poet known today as Omar Khayyam – who was also a mathematician – incorporated self-deprecatory references to his math theories into the Rubaiyat. Most of Stewart’s book is concerned with the particular concept of symmetry, where it shows up in mathematics (in lots of places), and what contributions to its study were made by some frequently peculiar characters – discussed in chapters such as “The Frustrated Doctor and the Sickly Genius,” “The Mediocre Engineer and the Transcendent Professor,” “The Drunken Vandal,” and “A Quantum Quintet.” Stewart is fond of phrases such as “the beauty and value of…results” and of quotations including such words as “a solution, as precise as it is profound, of this beautiful problem.” Indeed, he sees beauty where others might see elegance or precision. Stewart writes well, and explains complex concepts as clearly as it is possible to explain them. But his reaching out to non-mathematicians is not really successful – not everything in the book is mathematical, but you have to wade through a lot of math to find the parts that aren’t. And the book’s title is a bit of a cheat, since Stewart never really explains why beauty is truth – or even that beauty is truth – but merely explores the subjects of truth and beauty from a mathematical perspective. To quote out of context the poet John Keats, whose “Ode on a Grecian Urn” supplied Stewart with his title, where this book’s subject matter is concerned, it is not quite “all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

      The beauty in Charles Alston is decidedly non-mathematical, although many will find it every bit as varied as mathematics, if only occasionally as symmetrical. Alston (1907-1997) was a skilled and influential African-American artist; this book is the sixth volume in The David C. Driskell Series of African American Art. Frequently in art books, there is a brief introductory essay, after which the art is left to speak for itself. Not so here: Alvia J. Wardlaw, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, writes quite extensively about Alston, his influences and those he influenced, and illustrates her chapters with a very wide-ranging selection of Alston’s work. “Wide-ranging” is, in fact, a fine adjective for Alston, who did strictly representational art; semi-representational works, such as a series of murals for Harlem Hospital and their excellent graphite-on-paper studies reproduced here; semi-abstract art, using elements of cubism and other styles; and entirely non-representational works, including quite a few called “Untitled.” Alston worked in a wide range of media: pen and ink on paper or rice paper, oil on canvas, oil on Masonite, and watercolor and gouache on paper. And he mixed media intriguingly, using, for example, ink and watercolor on rice paper to create some haunting abstracts. Alston was also a sculptor: a photo of his fine bust of Martin Luther King Jr. is included in this book. Alston was clearly proud of being an African-American, as shown in his mural, “The Negro in California History: Exploration and Colonization,” created in 1948 for the Golden State Mutual Life insurance Company, and also in scenes such as “Midnight Vigil” and portraits of individuals. But his best work transcends skin color, showing a fine sense of line, scale and shape, and the ability to communicate emotion even in such a work as an untitled 1960 abstract whose color scheme ranges from grey to black. Charles Alston is not a book for everyone – Alston’s art will not be to all tastes – but it offers a welcome chance to explore a contemporary artist whose skill is impressive in an unusually large variety of forms.

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