2/02/2017 Peter Durantine

Lindback Recipient: Math Offers Different Perspectives on Paintings

Franklin & Marshall College’s 2016 recipient of the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, Professor of Mathematics Annalisa Crannell, stood before the audience in Mayser Gymnasium to discuss how liberal arts and mathematics changes the way we look at the world.

However, she began her Feb. 2 talk at Common Hour, the community discussion conducted every Thursday classes are in session during the semester, with an autobiographical sketch, framed in a series of stories thanking people at F&M who over the years helped her gain new perspectives.

Crannell, who has researched “chaos theory” and is author with mathematician artist Marc Frantz of “Viewpoints: Mathematical Perspective and Fractal Geometry in Art,” started with a story about what she did when she learned she had made tenure: “I went out and bought a banjo.”

She went on to thank Boots Miles, an employee at Facilities and Operations, who helped her learn to play the banjo with simple advice—“Just keep practicing.” It was a great lesson in perseverance and humility, Crannell said.

  • "Sometimes we need to get close to something to see it in the way that it is really meant to be seen,” Crannell says. Image Credit: Deb Grove

Her next story was about the day after she learned she received tenure, when History and American Studies Professor Louise Stevenson stopped by her office to congratulate her. “She said, ‘You know, when I got tenure, I didn’t feel any different, but people treated me differently.’ That comment stuck with me … because for me, it was another really interesting and concrete example of the way our circumstances affect people’s perceptions of us.”

“I thought about that a lot over the years,” Crannell said. “I’ve been really grateful to a lot of other people who helped me.”

Some of the people and their stories she listed included Professor of Mathematics Robert Gethner, whose encouragement and advice on her research helped her achieve tenure; the Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology Joel Eigen, who she worked with opening the College Houses; and the B.F. Fackenthal, Jr. Professor of Biology Kirk Miller, who helped her in a faculty writing workshop.  

Having provided an overview of her life at F&M and the people who helped inspire her and influence new perspectives, Crannell moved her discussion to “How do we get this wonderful three-dimensional world we live in and put it on a two-dimensional canvas?”

Crannell explained that when eyeing a painting in a museum, there is a “vanishing point,” lines of parallels and perpendiculars intersecting in space on the picture’s plane that provides the correct geometric perspective to the work.

She used a painting by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer to illustrate that point. A prominent critic argued that the table in the painting was incorrectly shaped. Crannell showed that by standing at a certain angle and at a certain distance (the vanishing point) from the painting, the table is indeed the correct shape.

“The lesson here is that sometimes we need to get close to something to see it in the way that it is really meant to be seen,” she said. “I do know that being at F&M has really changed the way I look at the world.” 

  • The painting in question: German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer's "St. Jerome in His Study," 1514. Image Credit: Deb Grove
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