Science imitates art?
Artisans decorated the octagonal Gunbad-i Kabud tower in Iran (c. 1197 AD) with incredibly complex geometric patterns. On other medieval Islamic buildings, the same tiles were used to create intricate patterns reflecting mathematics that had not been understood in the West until British physicist Roger Penrose studied them in the 1970s and 1980s. A paper published last week in Science was the first to make this connection.
The five essential polygons
The pentagon (1), rhombus (2), hexagon
(3), bowtie (4), and decagon (5) make
up the set of five basic shapes used to
create mosiac patterns.
Unique characteristics of the polygons
Create your own Medieval Islamic
With scissors, cut the shapes from the .PDF documents below. Collect as many individual pieces of each
shape as you would like. Then, arrange them in patterns to create your unique medieval Islamic design. As a
challenge, try to create a design by arranging all five shapes.
Gunbad-i Kabud tomb tower
in Maragha, Iran, taken circa
1870s, by A. Sevruguin.
(Harvard College Library)
Eight centuries later
Today, scientists use the geometric
lessons of Roger Penrose to make
quasicrystals: patterns of shapes that do
not occur naturally among crystals, such
as polygons with five or 10 sides.
Materials with atoms in these special
arrangements can have unusual
properties, like a commercially available
frying pan whose quasicrystal coating is
harder than steel and as slippery as
Templates used as design guides
This template, from a scroll now housed in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace, shows
the same type of intricate geometric pattern as on the tower, built several
hundred years earlier. These scrolls were used to transmit and document
information among master architects.
Marveled at tilework
Visiting his cousin in the Peace Corps in 2005, Peter
Lu was struck by the beauty of the decorations on a
building in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. Lu, a PhD candidate
in Harvard's physics department, thought the
geometric patterns might be related to ones he had
written about in his undergraduate thesis at
Princeton - that he thought hadn't been discovered
until the 1970s. Since then, Lu has spent hundreds
of hours in the basement of Harvard's art history
library, poring through pictures of Islamic art and
architecture. His conclusion: The art, in countries
from Iran to Turkey to Uzbekistan, ''reveals a much
greater degree of mathematical sophistication than
we had thought.''
SOURCE: Peter J. Lu and Paul J. Steinhardt; Decagonal and Quasi-
Crystalline Tiling in Medieval Islamic Architecture, SCIENCE, Feb. 23
Text by Karen Weintraub, James Abundis / Globe Staff