Minimal Snow: An Excerpt from Fragments of Infinity
In the gray light of a wintry day, the giant, sleekly curved figure reclining on its icy couch appeared ready for slumber. From some angles, the snow sculpture resembled a strangely contorted bell; from other angles, a piece of surreal plumbing or an ancient urn worn smooth by time. Its curious system of tunnels echoed the work of British sculptor Henry Moore.
The setting was the ski resort town of Breckenridge in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The occasion was the 1999 International Snow Sculpture Championships. In this annual event held in January, teams from around the world compete by carving sculptures out of twelve-foot-high, twenty-ton blocks of densely packed, machine-made snow. In 1999 one team, headed by Helaman Ferguson, dared to put forward a purely mathematical form as its entry in this prestigious competition.
The chosen shape was the central portion of the Costa surface, named for the Brazilian mathematician Celso J. Costa, who had discovered the equations for this particular figure in 1983. The Costa surface belongs to the family of geometric shapes known as minimal surfaces.
A minimal surface is one for which any distortion, no matter how small, increases its area. . . .
Intriguingly, Ferguson’s sculptures of the Costa surface . . . represent the culmination of an exploration that started more than two centuries ago with scientific observations of soap films in nature. In the years that followed, mathematicians developed equations to describe such surfaces. Costa probed those generic equations to uncover a novel minimal surface no one had seen before. Inspired by this form, Ferguson’s creations completed a cycle back to nature, making concrete what was initially just equation and computer-generated picture.
From Fragments of Infinity: A Kaleidoscope of Math and Art
John Wiley and Sons, $29.95
Connect With Us:
An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns, and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.News of book reviews published in American Scientist and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.
To sign up for automatic emails of the American Scientist Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an online profile, then sign up in the My AmSci area.
Receive notification when new content is posted from the entire website, or choose from the customized feeds available.
JSTOR, the online academic archive, contains complete back issues of American Scientist from 1913 (known then as the Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.
The table of contents for each issue is freely available to all users; those with institutional access can read each complete issue.
View the full collection here.