The train services in Scotland are dreadful. Probably the worst in Europe, possibly the worst in the world. Trains are never on time, often delayed, regularly canceled, while empty carriages flash by stations without ever stopping. Tonight was no different. All trains going to where I was going were delayed then canceled and finally replaced by a bus.
But there are always good things to be found even in the most frustrating of times. The replacement bus was crammed with passengers—tired, weary, cold, just wanting to get home. I managed to find a seat beside a young woman who was returning from a conference on Bioinspired Nanomaterials. She explained how one day it will be possible to make organs (livers, kidneys, hearts) in laboratory conditions from these nanomaterials. One day. Maybe five years from now. But at present it’s a question of getting the cell replication correct. A cheery young man on the seat in front turned around and said what a fascinating conversation—which was certainly not because of my input—and started asking about the practicalities of these future technologies. It turned out this fellow was equally smart—a quantum mathematician. He explained how this will one day help computers to become faster. Computers, he explained, work on binary code 1 and 0. Quantum math is working towards using a particle that is at once both 1 and 0.
These kids were super smart and I felt like Grampa Simpson, which will explain if I get anything I heard wrong. Too soon, it was my stop. But it was the kind meeting, two ships in the night-kinda thing, that makes life good, richer, much more fun and far more interesting.
I got off the bus wondering if the late genius mathematician Simon Norton had ever gotten around to completing his formula and theories on getting buses to run on time would it have ever helped the trains in Scotland? These thought of mathematics, binary, and cell replication made me think of M. C. Escher with his seemingly impossible yet beautiful artworks like Relativity, Waterfall and Metamorphosis III.
Escher (1898-1972) was never an academic. He was by his own admission bored by school. His only passion was art, but even at this he considered himself just average, graduating with a seven in his studies. As his parents encouraged him to find a profession, Escher briefly studied architecture at the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts. Here, he learnt how to make woodcuts. It was his woodcuts that first attracted the interest of graphic artist Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita, who encouraged Escher to abandon his architectural studies and concentrate on art. It was one of those Pauline moments, where Escher’s life path was utterly altered.
He developed his artistic skills during the thirteen years he spent living and traveling in Italy and Spain from 1922-35. He was inspired by the geometric designs and shape of the Italian landscape and its buildings rather than the more obvious beauty of the country’s Renaissance and Baroque architecture. In Spain, he was particularly influenced by the Moorish designs at the Alhambra, which first started his intricate and complex tessellations. He became almost obsessed with these designs, spending days working on one image, admitting that he had become “addicted” to producing such drawings to the point of “mania.”
His work attracted fan mail from mathematicians, which led Escher to study geometric and mathematical forms as a basis for his designs. This led him to produce works like House of Stairs and Ascending and Descending, which was largely inspired by the Penrose stairs—an impossible object devised by psychiatrist, geneticist, and mathematician Lionel Penrose.
Escher’s work can be divided into two categories—the early work inspired by nature, and the latter, gradually growing more abstract, inspired by mathematics and geometry like Gravitation, Möbius Strip II and Circle Limit.
Not long before he died in 1972, Escher was filmed for a Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ film Adventures in Perception, by fellow artist and filmmaker Han van Gelder. The film captured Escher at work and offered a portrait of an artist whose work intuitively visualised the essence of many mathematical theories and ideas.
Escher once said he never thought of himself as an “artist”:
This name, artist—I’ve always been very suspicious about it. I don’t actually know what it means. I don’t even know what art is. I do know what science is, but I’m no scientist.