Sacred and Ephemeral

by Roland Minton on March 14, 2018

Sacred geometry has a long history, including Plato’s Academy (“Let no one enter who is ignorant of geometry.”) and the design of Washington D.C. (see Nicholas Mann’s book) … and several conspiracy theory books and movies. For Floyd artist Carolyn Deck, sacred geometry is a source of inspiration. She discussed this and her Smoyer Gallery exhibit “Ephemeral Equilibrium” with Jan Minton’s HNRS 241 Math and Art class.

Ms. Deck’s webpage at describes her progression from an MFA at the Royal College of Art in London to “a paradigm shift to recursive symmetry” in 2012 and a 2014 project titled “Dreams Beyond Numbers – Aperiodic Tilings.” A tiling (or tessellation) is the filling of a space with a set of geometrical shapes, such as rectangular tiles on a floor or a combination of pentagons and hexagons on a soccer ball. This is an active research area for mathematicians, and of interest to crystallographers and other scientists. Sacred geometry makes its appearance through the use of circles to construct regular polygons using compass and straightedge. The students worked through several constructions central to Deck’s current work.

In “Ephemeral Equilibrium” Ms. Deck explores the relationships among tilings, sacred geometry, and nature. A close examination of each of her paintings reveals the geometry underlying the piece. This in turn prompts a reflection on the mathematics underlying all of life, creating a uniquely liberal arts approach to mathematics.


Behind the Folds

by Roland Minton on March 5, 2018

An interest in mathematics can lead to amazing new experiences. For Jan Minton and her HNRS 241: Math and Art class, the new experience was a conversation with an award-winning documentary maker*. The documentary in question, titled Between the Folds, is about the wonderful world of origami.

Vanessa Gould followed a winding path to her documentary. From a college career with numerous changes of major to an unfulfilling first job to a chance encounter with the American origami community, her story is a quintessential liberal arts story of numerous interests and skills leading to success.

Between the Folds is an engrossing story of mathematicians, scientists, and artists who became obsessed with the possibilities of paper folding. The creations go way beyond the paper cranes you may have seen, to elaborate insects (the community had a “Bug Wars” phase of increasingly complex creations) to realistic and fanciful animals to graceful abstract shapes. The creators speak eloquently and movingly about the interplay between technique and vision.

Ms. Gould answered numerous questions from the class, touching on film-making details, personalities of the people she encountered, ideas about mathematics education, and her pleasure that Roanoke has a Math and Art class. She is grateful to her subjects for their cooperation in the making of the film, but more so for the life lessons they taught her. By and large, these were people who “leapt before they looked” into origami, allowing their fascination with the process to override career ambitions. Their love of origami is evident throughout the film.

One of the “stars” of the film is Eric Joisel, a Frenchman whom Gould became friends with. (You get the idea in the film that they are all friends, and she described the community as one of sharing discoveries for the betterment of the art, without bickering over who deserves credit.) Upon Joisel’s death in 2010, Gould took it upon herself to get his life on public record through a high-profile obituary. The New York Times worked with her and printed one, an experience that inspired her current documentary Obit.

Perhaps there will be a follow-up to this post many years in the future, indicating how a class presentation by Vanessa Gould led to an important career or life decision.

* Between the Folds won a 2010 Peabody Award. Ms. Gould was on campus to show and discuss Obit for the college’s Women’s Forum. Her connection to the Math and Art class was made by President and Mrs. David Gring. Surprising connection make great events happen.



175! MCSP Student Research Gallery

by Roland Minton on February 15, 2018

Roanoke College recently concluded its celebration of its 175th year in existence. Another 175th  milestone has just been reached in the MCSP Department: 175 student research displays on the second floor of Trexler!

To be clear, the gallery on the second floor does not currently display all 175 frames, just the 100 or so most recent ones. Nevertheless, the frames that are there give second floor visitors an idea of the breadth and depth of research in physics, computer science, and mathematics. Each frame has a portrait of the student who did an independent project along with the project title and a picture that in some way illustrates the topic of inquiry. Due to the presence of several student overachievers in MCSP, there is a rule that no student gets more than two frames. It was tempting to waive that rule to get an infinite regression going for Scotty.

The original motivation for the Wall of Fame was to promote student research. Few students did research in MCSP in the 1980s, most simply not knowing it was a possibility. After the first few frames went up, students started asking how they could get their picture up on the wall. Success! From a modest start of 18 projects in the first five years of frames (1992-1996), student output has increased to 77 frames in the last five years (well over 80 projects, given the 2-frame rule).

The first three frames made were for Chris Hylton, Chris Assaid, and Erica Thompson. The Chrises worked together learning time series analysis and applying it to economic data. Erica investigated chaos theory and fractals from function iterations. Early frames featured photographs of computer screens, developed at K-Mart and taped to a piece of yellow paper. Images were not completely digital until 2000. You can see all of the frame images at

Some of the mathematics research titles include “Is It a Knot or Not?”, “Fuzzy Logic and Control”, “A Graph Theory Analysis of Food Deserts in the Roanoke Valley”, “Compositions and Counting Cards” (yes, of the Vegas type), “Assessment of Water Quality in the Chesapeake Bay”, “Gothic Cathedrals and Sacred Ratios”, and “Is Streak Shooting a Cognitive Illusion?” As our students have discovered, mathematics is a very diverse field. Physics titles include “Spectroscopic Investigation of Gussev Crater, Mars”, “Origins of a Galaxy Group in Cluster A3128”, “Classic Neural Models for Small Cell Effects”, and “Growth and Characterization of Carbon Nanotubes”. Computer science titles include “Presence in an Immersive Environment”, “Accessible Accessibility”, “Maximal Snakes in Hypercubes”, and “Recursive Median Blob Detection”.


Maroon Academy

November 15, 2017

We are always delighted when we hear from alumni. A recent visit from Sarah Witt ’12 … excuse me, that would be Dr. Sarah Janse as Sarah just earned her Ph.D. in statistics from the University of Kentucky! We had a great visit with Sarah, her husband Zaan, and her parents. Sarah has already landed […]

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RC Home for Sports Analytics

September 21, 2017

Roanoke College hosted the Virginia Sports Analytics Meeting (VSAM) on Saturday 9/16 in the Cregger Center. VSAM is a direct offspring of Furman University’s Carolina Sports Analytics Meeting, which was the first regional sports analytics meeting in the country. Two important goals of the conferences are student involvement and the promotion of sports analytics. Five […]

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RC Students Present Statistics Work

September 21, 2017

David Moreau and Lexi Denning had a busy week. David is a junior Physics major from Connecticut and Lexi is a junior Mathematics major from Connecticut. Tuesday evening (9/12) David and Lexi were co-presenters at the MCSP Conversation Series. Then on Saturday they ran the registration table and presented posters at the Virginia Sports Analytics […]

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ECLIPSE 2017: RC Students Serve as Eclipse Ambassadors in Smoky Mountain National Park

August 24, 2017

An adventurous group of Roanoke students and guests, as well as two Roanoke physics professors (Matt Fleenor and Dan Robb) took a trip to western North Carolina for the weekend of Aug. 19-21, culminating in an observation of the eclipse within the path of totality.  The end goal was to serve as the science ambassadors […]

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Breaking the Stereotype: A spotlight on 2017 RC female physics graduates

June 14, 2017

The 2017 graduation year is special one for a variety of reasons. It is the 175th year of Roanoke College. The Physics Group at Roanoke College saw one of its largest group of graduating students ever, and more importantly, nearly 30% of those graduating physics students were from underrepresented groups: females and minorities. According to […]

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RC Physics students visit Green Bank Observatory

May 12, 2017

A group of RC physics students (left to right above, Jacob Barfield, Eve Allen, Duncan Maclean, Gretchen Michaels and Lydia Tung) visited the site of the largest, steerable radio telescope in the world, which is only three hours drive from Roanoke.  In Green Bank, WV, there are over 10 different radio telescopes in operation, including the […]

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RC Sophomore Liam Lambert receives Goldwater Scholarship Honorable Mention

May 3, 2017

Roanoke College sophomore and physics and mathematics double major, Liam Lambert, has received an Honorable mention in the prestigious Goldwater scholarship competition. He has worked on research on iron oxide nanoparticles with Dr. Rama Bala for the past year and a half. He has shown important results on the transformation and growth of these nanoparticles, […]

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