Interdisciplinary courses, positions, PhD, in Italy

Michele Emmer
Dipartimento di Matematica,
Università di Roma “La Sapienza”

The paper elaborates on my experience with interdisciplinary courses between mathematics and a number of subject (art, architecture, …) throught many years and some difficulties that arise thereupon.

First of all I would like to say that these academic activities started as a personal experience more than 30 years ago. For many years I was (and I still am) officially a full professor in Math and non officially I worked on the relationships between mathematics, art, architecture, biology, physics, literature, cinema. At a certain point of my activity my work on art and math was recognized as an official work in mathematics.

I was very proud when I received as national coordinator two grants in 2007 and 2009 (the rules exclude applaying for a grant every year) on mathematics and modern art. These grants were assigned by the Italian Committee for National Funds (PRIN) for mathematics. So the math researchears decided to support my research on art and math. Due to the economic crisis in Italy and in the funds for the Universities a choice like this means that other research, strictly math research, did not receive a grant. These was unthinkable 30 years ago, even 20 years ago.

Due to the change in the attitude of the Math community it was possibile to undertake several projects:

– the “Mathematics and Culture” international yearly conference in Venice starting in 1998. Part of the conference is dedicated to art and math. Proceedings in Italian and in English by Springer verlag, more than 25 volumes. From 2012 a new series “Imagine Math: math and culture” always published by Springer verlag. The next conference will be particularly interesting because speakers will include Linda D. Henderson on a project for an important exhibition on art and math in Italy.
– 20 films of the series “Art and Mathematics” produced in several languages, shown in the Italian State Television and other TV channels, including the film on Soap Bubbles, featuring the well known mathematicians at Princeton University Fred Almgren and Jean Taylor. A film on Escher with Roger Penrose and Donald Coxeter, distrubuted in USA for 20 years, a film based on the book Flatland all in animation, original music by Ennio Morricone. All films were produced in french for the Citè des Sciences de la Villette in Paris. Most of the films produced also in English and Spanish versions.
– In 2004 I launched a completely new course, existing only at the University of Rome, called “Space and Form”, an interdisciplinary insight of the relationships betwwen mathematics, art, architecture, biology, literature, theatre, cinema with a myriad of applications in all these fields during the XIX and XX century. It involves students of the last years in math, design and architecture, including a small group of ERASMUS students from several European Countries.   The number of students are usually every year between 50 and 60, adding to more than 450 in seven years. There is a project to write in English a text book of the course to be used of course not only in Italy, but I hope in Europe and elsewhere.
Soap bubbles are part of the topics of the course on “Space and form”. There is the project to publish an English version of the book.
Architects, Like Massimiliano Fuksas, artists, writers, filmmakers like Gustavo Mosquera, came to present their works to the students for the course “Space and Form”

One important result of this activity was:
– The Literary Viareggio Award 2010 (Best Italian essay 2010) for the book on “Soap Bubbles” I wrote in Italian. The same year the International Viareggio Award was given to Vargas Llosa. A short abstract of the motivation of the Jury, most of them university professors):
“Emmer wrote an extraordinary book in which mathematics and science, analytical rigor and artistic sensibility is a perfect match, …a real adventure of intelligence, which he reconstructs in masterly fashion by giving us a book not only interesting, but rare.”
The same book also received the Premio Capalbio Scienza 2010 (Best science book “)

The real problem

– There is an interesting discussion developing in Italy and Europe on the possibility to introduce  interdisciplinary curriculum, master, PhD in art and science. The real problem is to obtain positions for researchers in this area. In Italy in particular there is a major problem: in which discipline can we insert an interdisciplinary course? Can you ask a math department for a position for a young researcher on art, math and architecture? In Italy it is impossible for the time being. As it is impossible to obtain any dedicated PhD program or any contract for lectures. I cannot recomend my students to continue to study art, math, architecture, as there will be no future for them.

– At a European level however, there is a new PhD in France and Swizterland on art and science for artists and designers, as well as interdisciplinary seminars on art and science proposed for 2013 in Paris. While at the European level it is possible to ask a grant to organize an exhibition on art and math this is out of the question in Italy.

– in 2008 we started an important project of a large exhibition on math and modern and contemporary art to make visible all the work that has been done in the last years. This year there was the exhibition on art and math at the Cartier Foundation in Paris (nor realy satisfactory) and the small exhibition on Henry Moore and math at the Royal Society in London.

Final Comments
Due to my personal exprience and my knowledge it will be easier to organize interdisciplinary courses, masters, perhaps PhD, at the European level. It will be probably easy if the different European contries put their experience together to ask for an international and interdisciplinary important Grant for the next years. It will be probably more complicated to cooperate also with USA. But Leonardo is a good way to cooperate.