Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Medieval Islamic Architecture Presages 20th-century Mathematics

Date:
February 24, 2007
Source:
Harvard University
Summary:
Intricate decorative tilework found in medieval architecture across the Islamic world appears to exhibit advanced decagonal quasicrystal geometry -- a concept discovered by Western mathematicians and physicists only in the 1970s and 1980s. If so, medieval Islamic application of this geometry would predate Western mastery by at least half a millennium.

"We're finding widespread evidence for the same approach being used for 500 years across the Islamic world," says Peter J. Lu, a graduate student in physics. "Again and again, girih tiles provide logical explanations for complicated designs." (Credit: Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office)
Credit: Staff photo Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard News Office

Intricate decorative tilework found in medieval architecture across the Islamic world appears to exhibit advanced decagonal quasicrystal geometry -- a concept discovered by Western mathematicians and physicists only in the 1970s and 1980s. If so, medieval Islamic application of this geometry would predate Western mastery by at least half a millennium.

The finding, by Peter J. Lu at Harvard University and Paul J. Steinhardt at Princeton University, will be published this week in the journal Science.

"We can't say for sure what it means," says Lu, a graduate student in physics at Harvard's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. "It could be proof of a major role of mathematics in medieval Islamic art or it could have been just a way for artisans to construct their art more easily. It would be incredible if it were all coincidence, though. At the very least, it shows us a culture that we often don't credit enough was far more advanced than we ever thought before."

Breathtakingly elaborate geometric tiling is a distinctive feature of medieval Islamic architecture throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Art historians have long assumed that simpler elements of the patterns were created with elementary tools such as straightedges and compasses. But there has been no explanation for how artists and architects could have created the unmistakably complex tile patterns adorning many medieval Islamic edifices.

"Straightedges and compasses work fine for the recurring symmetries of the simplest patterns we see," Lu says, "but it probably required far more powerful tools to fully explain the elaborate tilings with decagonal symmetry."

While it's possible to create these patterns individually with basic tools, they are incredibly difficult to replicate on a larger scale without generating extensive geometric distortions. The most complex medieval Islamic tilings have little such distortion, leading Lu to believe more is at play.

"Individually placing and drafting hundreds of decagons with a straightedge would have been exceedingly cumbersome," Lu says. "It's much more likely these artisans used particular tiles that we've found by decomposing the artwork."

These tiles, dubbed "girih tiles" by Lu and Steinhardt, consist of sets of five contiguous polygons (a decagon, pentagon, diamond, bowtie, and hexagon), each with a unique decorative line pattern. For medieval Islamic artisans, they may have represented a toolkit for generating huge numbers of distinctive tile patterns without the lengthy, painstaking, and often flawed process of creating each line segment individually.

These girih tiles may have been used to generate a wide range of complex tiling patterns on major buildings from medieval Islam, including mosques in Isfahan, Iran, and Bursa, Turkey; madrasas in Baghdad; and shrines in Herat, Afghanistan, and Agra, India.

In some cases, Lu found girih tiles used to create patterns of two distinct scales on medieval Islamic buildings. This approach generates infinite patterns with decagonal symmetry that never repeats -- also known as a quasicrystalline tiling, a phenomenon first described in the West in the 1970s by famed British mathematician Roger Penrose and more fully explained by Steinhardt and Dov Levine over the past 30 years.

In addition to examples on medieval structures that are still standing, Lu has been able to match his girih tiles with drawings in 15th-century Persian scrolls drafted by master architects to document their techniques.

"We're finding widespread evidence for the same approach being used for 500 years across the Islamic world," Lu says. "Again and again, girih tiles provide logical explanations for complicated designs."

Lu and Steinhardt's tile study was supported in part by Harvard's Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture and by C. and F. Lu.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Harvard University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Harvard University. "Medieval Islamic Architecture Presages 20th-century Mathematics." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 24 February 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070222155706.htm>.
Harvard University. (2007, February 24). Medieval Islamic Architecture Presages 20th-century Mathematics. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070222155706.htm
Harvard University. "Medieval Islamic Architecture Presages 20th-century Mathematics." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/02/070222155706.htm (accessed August 21, 2014).

Share This




More Fossils & Ruins News

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Disquieting Times for Malaysia's 'fish Listeners'

Disquieting Times for Malaysia's 'fish Listeners'

AFP (Aug. 19, 2014) — Malaysia's last "fish listeners" -- practitioners of a dying local art of listening underwater to locate their quarry -- try to keep the ancient technique alive in the face of industrial trawling and the depletion of stocks. Duration: 02:29 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Mother And Son Find Woolly Mammoth Tusks 22 Years Apart

Mother And Son Find Woolly Mammoth Tusks 22 Years Apart

Newsy (Aug. 15, 2014) — A mother and son in Alaska uncovered woolly mammoth tusks in the same river more than two decades apart. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Fossils Reveal Ancient Flying Reptile With 'Butterfly Head'

Fossils Reveal Ancient Flying Reptile With 'Butterfly Head'

Newsy (Aug. 14, 2014) — Newly found fossils reveal a previously unknown species of flying reptile with a really weird head, which some say looks like a butterfly. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Clearing WWII's Explosive Legacy in the Pacific

Clearing WWII's Explosive Legacy in the Pacific

AFP (Aug. 11, 2014) — The hulks of tanks can still be found rusting in the jungles of Palau, but the fierce fighting that scarred the Pacific island nation in WWII has left a more dangerous legacy - unexploded bombs that pose a constant risk to locals. Duration: 00:47 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins