Creative maths

Associate Professor Katherine Seaton, from the College of Science, Health and Engineering, believes that we need to shift our perspective on maths

Associate Professor Katherine Seaton, from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, believes that we need to shift our perspective on maths. “We already know it is useful, it offers high employability, it helps us to understand the world and ensures that bridges don’t fall down,” she says, with a smile. “The practical nature of maths often drowns out the other message: that maths is also beautiful and creative, and it can feed the soul.”

Spend ten minutes with Seaton, and she will change all your preconceptions about maths and mathematicians. She is open yet considered, with a quiet musicality to her voice that speaks to her passion for the road less travelled.

Seaton’s own journey started off in pharmacy and ended up in mathematical physics. Today she’s an expert on mathematics education and academic integrity.

But the surprising bit is her more recent specialisation in mathematical art: a “wildly unexpected” multidisciplinary endeavour. Maurits Cornelis Escher’s exploration of symmetry in art is, perhaps, the most famous example, but Seaton cites more contemporary examples including fractal-inspired landscapes and hyperbolic-inspired crochet.

Seaton herself produces mathematical fibre arts, “crocheted, embroidered or knitted.” She’s given public lectures on Escher at the National Gallery of Victoria and sits on the editorial board of the Journal for Mathematics and the Arts.

She is currently collaborating with a scholar on the mathematical concepts behind a traditional form of Japanese embroidery.

This work, Seaton argues, offers a “feminist reclaiming of the hidden traditional maths that was a part of women’s everyday lives.” “In knitting and weaving, and in sewing and patchwork, women have practised maths their entire lives,” she says. “Shaping a garment to make it fit, knitting socks to fit a foot, there’s a lot of maths in there that has not been acknowledged and that women have not received credit for. This research is about reclaiming it all.”

Seaton’s career has seen a similar reclaiming, where the “incredibly leaky academic pipeline” is now filled with more women mathematicians and students, who are reimagining the discipline and inspiring others to see maths with fresh eyes.

“I always say to my students, ‘maths is symbols on a piece of paper,’” she adds. “It’s not dangerous. It doesn’t require heavy lifting. You can’t get hurt. But you can do just about anything with it. It’s ubiquitous and it’s everywhere. And that’s one of the things I love most. It’s actually an open book.”

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