I am over the moon excited about an article in a recent issue of The New Yorker. The cover date is April 11. (Come on, it’s not like you’re on top of the most recent issue either.) The article, by Richard Preston, Capturing the Unicorn is about finding a mathematical solution to the problems that the Metropolitan Museum faced when trying to digitally document the The Unicorn Tapestries with any kind of accuracy.
That is a summary in the broadest possible strokes. The article offers a confluence of elements that I find absolutely fascinating:
Digital photography overall, and its uses in terms of accurately documenting a (huge) museum collection
Math at very abstract levels that make my brain hurt. (But also make me wish that I’d paid more attention when I was back at Stuyvesant
Really really really smart people: Two brothers, Gregory and David Chudnovsky, who “insist that they are functionally one mathematician who happens to occupy two bodies.”
Unicorns! Because that is exactly the kind of dork I am. (Yes, my junior high school
diary journal had an image of the Unicorn in Captivity on its cover.)
Here’s an excerpt from the article:
A color digital photograph is composed of pixels. A pixel is the smallest picture element that contains color. The Unicorn tapestries are themselves made up of the medieval equivalent of pixels—a single crossing of warp and weft is the smallest unit of color in the image. The woven pixels were maddening because they moved constantly. The brothers understood, at last, that it would be necessary to perform vast seas of calculations upon each individual pixel in order to make a complete image of a tapestry. Each pixel had to be calculated in its relationship to every other nearby pixel, a mathematical problem, known as an N-problem, big enough to practically choke It. They decided to concentrate on just one of the tapestries, “The Unicorn in Captivity.” Gregory said, “This was a math problem similar to the analysis of DNA or speech recognition—”
“Look, my dear fellow, it was a real nightmare,” David said.