Math meets real life in recent Brown Bag

November 21, 2011 Community Print Print

If you ask mathematics Professor Jay Malmstrom whether math can be applied in real life, you may get a surprising answer. As a former applied mathematician for the U.S. Navy, Malmstrom said he knows math can be applied in many different contexts.

He has a particular interest in the link between Native American art and mathematics.

In a Student Life sponsored Brown Bag lunch Nov. 15 entitled “Mathematics in Culture,” Malmstom showed some of his Native American artifacts.

The intricate designs of his Native American pottery and blankets show symmetry, Malmstrom said, that could only have been achieved by applying math.

Malmstorm said he wants students to appreciate math.

“Mathematics is not just a bunch of abstract manipulations, but it has real-world roots,” he said.

He first showed off a beaded sash that contained hundreds of beads weaving in a continuing diamond-shaped pattern.

“The person who was making this pattern, while they weren’t necessarily being out-and-out mathematical, were using some very mathematical principles of symmetry.”

Malmstrom then showed some Native American pottery which also had complex symmetrical designs. He said that he would watch the people beading a shirt or moccasins, and they would plan out their designs on graph paper. They used quadrants to help them get the symmetry they wanted.

Malmstrom said observers can find mathematical patterns anywhere, not just in Native American art. Many cultures have their own patterns and designs, from ceremonial sashes and hats, to everyday pottery.

“Often times that pattern is telling a story or the colors have some meaning but it’s really just the same as my beaded sash mathematically. It has meaning to that person, and they use the patterns to tell a story, but it has patterns and you find them all over the place. Take a look around you, and I’m sure you’ll find them.”

Malmstrom said he grew up in New Mexico, surrounded by Navajo and Pueblo Indians, where his parents collected many Native American artifacts.

To contact Kate Walton, email

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