How many unique patterns can you create with tiles like this? Ask M.C. Escher.

Do the Numbers at the Moravian Math Conference

You don't have to be a mathematician to answer mathematical questions. Take graphic artist M. C. Escher: his drawings of stairways to nowhere, hands sketching themselves and other impossible realities have a strong mathematical component. Yet Escher was no mathematician, says Doris Schattschneider, professor emerita of mathematics at Moravian College. "He had no formal math training beyond high school and was a very poor mathematical student," she says. "But he had great mathematical curiosity and geometric insight. He worked like a mathematician, posing questions and investigating the answers in a meticulous, orderly way." One such question he asked and answered: given a tile of a specific design, how many different patterns can be created by arranging it in a two-by-two square? Out of 256 possible arrangements, Escher found that only 23 unique patterns could be produced.

Schattschneider will be discussing Escher's approach to this problem, and the ways in which modern mathematicians and computer scientists attack it, at Moravian College's 21st Annual Student Mathematics Conference, held February 17th. About 200 students and guests are expected to attend, says Michael Fraboni, assistant professor of mathematics at Moravian. There are few chances for area math undergrads to present their work, so the event generates a lot of enthusiasm among the participants, he says. "It’s great to see the excitement of the students who've been working on projects for months and now have a chance to talk about what they've done." But he notes that anyone who has an interest in math is welcome to attend: "You don't need to be a math major or have a huge background in math to get something out of the conference." Professor Schattschneider agrees. "I like to talk about Escher because he shows that mathematics isn't about formulas and memorizing multiplication tables," she says. "You need those fundamentals, but it's really about seeing patterns and finding symmetry."

Registraion and other details available here.