Mathematics as performance? A glance at ancient Asian calculations

Following the collaboration with the IST – Institute of Science and Technology Austria and the department of Applied Mathematics, I investigate the various forms of the public presentation of mathematical calculation throughout history. An interesting example is found in ancient Asia, precisely in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Here the role of the mathematician – scientist is equalized with that of the performer – artist. The shifted role could be attributed to Mathematics being looked upon as a craft, a mysterious endeavor in solving creative problems of the natural world, exclusively reserved for the skilled, knowledgeable craftsman. Solving problems was a public happening, the spectators silently present, whereas the mathematician would engage into “performing” his craft in an even exaggerated rhythmic manner; thus initiating the awe – struck nature of his working. As special wooden or iron rods were used to symbolize the numbers, they would be placed one by one onto a counting board, where the action would also produce a sound – in addition denoting a meditative musical piece. Research on this topic is leading me in the direction of further exploring the possibilities of reenacting such a performative scientific structure. In recreating and reenacting a “mathematical performance” it is possible to maybe learn more about the nature of such a presentation as well as ask more questions about the role of classical craft, experience and the entertaining properties of both scientific and artistic presentations.


Isidora Krstic


Fact Box

Mathematics as performance? A glance at ancient Asian calculations
June 27, 2013