John Sullivan

Professor of Mathematics
Institut für Mathematik, Technische Universität Berlin
Berlin, Germany

My art is an outgrowth of my work as a mathematician. My research studies curves and surfaces whose shape is determined by optimization principles or minimization of energy. A classical example is a soap bubble which is round because it minimizes its area while enclosing a fixed volume.

Like most research mathematicians, I find beauty in the elegant structure of mathematical proofs, and I feel that this elegance is discovered, not invented, by humans. I am fortunate that my own work also leads to visually appealing shapes, which can present a kind of beauty more accessible to the public.

Tetra6: Nonspherical Bubbles
Tetra6: Nonspherical Bubbles
60 x 60 cm
Computer graphics print
1990 (electronic), 2014 (print)

Surface tension pulls the soap films in a bubble cluster tight: a single bubble is a perfect sphere and in small clusters, each film is a piece of a sphere. In this cluster with two small bubbles surrounded tetrahedrally by four large ones, however, the central film is clearly saddle-shaped and in fact not even the outer surfaces are exactly spherical. Although I first rendered this image in 1990, it has never before been printed for exhibition. It was featured in Günter M. Ziegler's 2013 book "Mathematik – Das ist doch keine Kunst" and on the poster for Frank Morgan's talk at this year's Bridges, and its mathematics is explained in more detail in my short paper. The rendering was done with my custom soap-film shader for Renderman.