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TV Review

'Numbers' Puts Art Into Mathematics' Equation


"I think we have a big misunderstanding about seeing," says artist Tony Robbins in the premiere episode of "Life by the Numbers," a new PBS series about mathematics. "We think we see with our eyes. In fact, we see with our minds."

Mostly, we see through mathematics, as this program makes compellingly clear.

Robbins' sculptures explore four-dimensional spaces, using geometries the mind alone can't see but which mathematics allows us to perceive. Math not only makes all perception possible, it also allows us to invent and explore worlds that don't exist--and sometimes, can't exist. These imagined worlds within our heads become spaces other people can inhabit and explore.

As host Danny Glover so aptly exclaims: "This is mathematics like you've never seen it before."

The first of eight programs focuses on seeing things--taking the viewer into the math behind virtual reality, special effects and thrill rides. Some of the historical material on the development of perspective goes a little slowly, but it makes important points. Perspective drawing gave the West a head start on the industrial revolution. It was also the first step toward "mathematicizing" vision, allowing an artist to put another person in her own (visual) shoes.

Today, artists such as Donna Cox use computer versions of the same techniques to choreograph motions of stars in three dimensions, smashing galaxies together and putting viewers in the center of the action.

Working with mathematicians, Cox also explores impossible abstract forms, discovering wholly invented territories. Forms bloom like flowers from the seeds of equations in the fertile soil of computers. One looks like a Venus figure before it evolves on the computer screen, sprouting wings like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly.

"We had no idea what this surface was going to look like," she says.

The program works best when it weaves art, math and history into one enlightening tapestry--for example, tying together Picasso's approach to depicting multidimensional reality with mathematicians' efforts to understand four-dimensional space.

After discovering the four-dimensional mathematics of Brown University's Tom Banchoff, artist Robbins reports: "It was as if I could plunge my hands through the computer screen and handle this four-dimensional cube like quicksilver, changing and turning inside out. . . . For days, I dreamed only of these images."

The visuals work better than the talking heads, but the writing is often eloquent and the ideas are deep. Math not only allows us to see what is, but what could be. "I'm trying to find what new things are possible," says an architect of virtual structures he will never inhabit.

Glover sums up the program well when he says: "With mathematics we have created a doorway to the universe of the imagination."

* "Life by the Numbers" airs at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28. Subsequent episodes will air in May.

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