Mathematics as art and/or science?


Wandering around the Cornell campus this morning, instead of making plans to have my picture taken in front of the arXiv, wherever that is, I was ruminating on the almost universal tendency to expel university science departments from historic buildings with character to nondescript but functional modernist structures.  The arts may not be funded as well as the sciences — and they are at constant risk of being axed in favor of more practical vocational education that better anticipates the needs of society, but they do tend to be housed in classier buildings, and the mathematicians generally follow the scientists.

In 1999, [Cornell’s mathematics] department left White Hall, its home for 130 years, and moved to Malott Hall.

Malott Hall is on Sciences Drive; White Hall, in the Arts Quad, is now the home of the Government Department.   Other mathematics departments with which I am familiar have similar stories.  (I was told that the windows in the Brandeis mathematics department were narrow to match the design of the adjacent chemistry building, whose experimental labs needed to be protected from the light.)

The most extreme exile may have been that of the Humboldt University mathematics department in Berlin.  The old campus in Berlin-Mitte, pictured on the left above, is now reserved for the “geistes-, sozial- und wirtschaftswissenschaftlichen Fakultäten mit ihren Instituten,” while the science departments have been sent out to the edge of town, a half-hour train ride away, to occupy the Campus Adlershof, a new artificial neighborhood that was originally intended for a commercial development that never materialized (or so I was told).  The mathematics faculty is behind the tram on the right.  Whatever one may think of the Adlershof facilities, the result hardly fits Wilhelm von Humboldt’s ideal of a university as a unified center of arts and sciences.

The topic of “mathematics as art and/or science” was one of the secondary “theses” presented by Leopold Kronecker at his doctoral defense — at the University of Berlin, now Humboldt University, undoubtedly in a neoclassical building similar to the library pictured above.  See chapter 10 of MWA for details.


2 thoughts on “Mathematics as art and/or science?

  1. andream61

    There are indeed many examples of math–and science–departments moving out of historical buildings and being relocated in less inspiring structures possibly far from downtown campuses. Our department in Torino seems to be an exception: we are located in a 17th century building with a long and troubled past standing in the very heart of town: our closest neighbors are the Egyptian Museum and Palazzo Carignano (the first Italian Parliament), . There were plans, years ago, to move all sciences departments–now scattered all over town–in a neighborhood in the suburbs, but after the fierce opposition of mainly the Physics and Chemistry Depts these plans were put aside, perhaps indefinitely.



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