Stephen Ornes’ ‘Math Art: Beauty, Truth, and Equations’ celebrates math and the artists who love it. John Sims is one of them

Math gets a bad rap in the creative community. To be fair, devotees of facts and figures return the compliment. They push to make S.T.E.M. (science, technology engineering and math) the heart of American education. The hard stuff is the good stuff. Art is a diversion, if not a waste of time.

The squabble is sad. Stephen Ornes’ “Math Art: Beauty, Truth, and Equations” (published by Sterling) strives to heal the great divide. He just might succeed. His book explores the magic of mathematics and the contemporary artists who’ve fallen under its spell.

Ornes’ writing is smart but lively. In the spirit of Martin Gardener’s classic thought experiments in “The Scientific American,” his style is accessible, but not dumbed down. The imagery lives up to his essays. His book is beautifully illustrated with stunning photographs of mathematical art. Bathsheba Grossman’s “Quin” commands the cover. Her 3-D printed sculpture evokes the swirling, perforated forms of an intricate, bone-white coral. It’s actually a depiction of non-Euclidean geometry.

Other hypnotic examples abound inside. You’ll see visual representations of the Golden Circle, the ubiquitous Fibonacci spiral, Möbius strips, and infinity itself. Beauty has a mathematical basis, it seems. That’s the core mystery. And Ornes’ core thesis.

John Sims is his prime example, and the subject of his first chapter. This Sarasota-based artist has been mad for math for most of his life. Pi is his great obsession — a mathematical Moby Dick, ever avoiding the harpoon of rationality. That’s a flashy way to put it. But it’s true.

“A circle seems so simple,” Sims says. “You understand a circle instantly and intuitively. Pi defines the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. You’d expect it to be simple. But you can’t express that ratio in a finite numerical series. The ratio is irrational! Pi is an irrational number. 3.14159 ... etc. It goes on forever. There’s no pattern, no logic. The number stretches to infinity.”

The artist notes the futile attempts of Western mathematicians to “square the circle.” In other words, construct a square with an equal area to any given circle. It seems like a simple equation. But nobody’s succeeded in writing it, though mathematicians won’t stop trying.

Sims makes a sly allusion to this impossible quest in his own art. In the paintings, quilts, and installations of his ongoing “Pi Series,” he represents pi’s infinitely curvy sequence by patterns of squares. How square can you get? “Ornes noticed that, too,” Sims laughs. “You’re the second.”

The math at a circle’s heart is infinitely elusive. But some artists seem to grasp it intuitively. Legend has it that Giotto accepted a challenge to draw a perfect circle — freehand. He succeeded. On the first try.

Ornes’ book is a lively mix of such anecdotes, along with paradoxes, puzzles, ditties and mathematical jokes. He celebrates the artists who’ve fallen under math’s spatial, geometrical, topological, and numerical spell. And the beauty they’ve created as a result.

Along with Sims’ slices of pi, you’ll see the brachiated, organic forms of Robert Fathauer’s fractal sculpture. Dorothea Rockburn’s installations, and their playful dances with infinity and the golden ratio. The interlocking complexity of Bathsheba Grossman’s witty sculpture (including a four-dimensional bottle opener for the impossible Klein Bottle). John Edmark’s 3-D printed sculpture — mathematic, organic, hypnotic and sometimes kinetic. (He literally makes the Fibonacci spiral dance.) Their art is mind-blowingly beautiful. But the late Crockett Johnson’s work is a standout. He painted the Pythagorean theorem as a triangular corridor worthy of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001.”

These artists beautifully balance the equation of mathematics and artistry. Ornes does them justice with his beautiful, brainy book.

The “math art” you’ll find inside is infinitely fascinating, even if you never made it through high school algebra. If you teach higher-level math at the college level, your intelligence won’t be insulted. It all adds up.

If mathematicians like Gödel, Escher and Cantor had coffee tables, this is the book they’d buy.