Arts Week 2019: When a mathematician, a musician and a poet collaborate and converse about symmetry and asymmetry

Miranda Siow, a Birkbeck alumna, shares insights from the Arts Week event that explored symmetry and asymmetry in maths, music and poetry.

View of Dr William’s Library and Euston Church from the central gardens in Gordon Square

Birkbeck was like my first home in London. It began with a conversation on a beach in Melbourne. One of my best friends asked me what I would do if money was no object. After puzzling over her question for several minutes, I concluded that my dream was to travel. ‘What about travel writing?’ she said. The thought had never occurred to me. I returned to London, bought a guide to travel writing book and tried an evening class called Introduction to Creative Writing at Birkbeck. I loved the writing class and rediscovered my passion for stories. I never read the travel writing book.

For years, I studied literature and creative writing at Birkbeck. My studies took me to other institutions to explore the arts and creativity, including achieving my dream of a Masters in English Literature. Last month, I found my way back to Birkbeck through an event entitled ‘Symmetry and asymmetry: maths, music and poetry.’

2 Temple Gardens, a Victorian Building overlooking the Thames

The history of symmetry is even older than the library, church and central garden which also reside in Gordon Square, where we gathered that Friday. Symmetry is often attributed to the Italian renaissance. It celebrates beauty, art and proportion. Symmetry and asymmetry involve balance, harmony, or disrupting these. Sarah Hart was brimming with enthusiasm and knowledge about triangles, crystals and the laws of symmetry. Shapes were folded, sliced and converted. An array of slides showed us triangles, polygons, polyhedra and spheres. We discovered symmetry in sea creatures and in Escher’s Angels and Demons.

Did you know that our world is full of symmetry, not just in poetry, architecture, art and nature, but also in the answering phrases in Bach’s compositions? I didn’t appreciate scales when I practised them as a child. Iain Burnside played the keyboard in that small room that sunny evening. His music had a beautiful simplicity. We heard Dante’s sonata and Conlon Nancarrow’s study number 21. He discussed inversions, inevitability, perfect fifths to perfect fourths, major into minor, tritons, inversions and death how bitter thou art.

Poet, Fran Lock introduced us to gurlesque, rhymes, secret metaphors and metrical patterning in heartbeats. There’s symmetry in behaviour, families and crowds. We desire order in fashion, bus lines and voting. Symmetry can be a constraint. We may break the pattern and seek imperfection, which has its own beauty.

Spring flowers in bloom

After the event, I’ve become more conscious of symmetry and asymmetry in the buildings around London and the vibrant flowers in bloom. The way a path is designed or the branches of a tree stretching out like open arms previously did not warrant a second thought. I have a fascination with how we see the world, the idea of conspiracy theories and different perspectives. Like them, symmetry and asymmetry provide another way to look at things, with a new lens and dimension.

St Paul’s Cathedral dome

I hear songs on the radio and it’s a game of tones. Tunes have a character with progressions and echoes. Some refrains are more dominant and powerful. Patterns and motifs are pleasing to the ear. We need only look up into cathedral domes or even the clothes that we wear to see patterns and motifs. Maths, music and poems have propelled into my life on and off throughout my childhood, teens and adulthood. Now, I also see an abundance of symmetry and asymmetry around me.

Clothes from a catwalk show at London Fashion Week Festival September 2018

Birkbeck’s final day of Arts Week was a serendipitous homecoming. I’ve found symmetry in my life, from my first Birkbeck writing class to blogging about this Birkbeck event. After more than a decade, I’m even living again in the same building as when I first moved to London. I wonder what my life would have been without that conversation on the beach, Birkbeck or creative writing. If I hadn’t done them, I might not have had the pleasure of an evening with a mathematician, musician and poet.


Photos by Miranda Siow



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