Math, Engineering Project, "Unfolding Humanity" Goes to Burning Man

Math, Engineering Project, "Unfolding Humanity" Goes to Burning Man

Members of the San Diego Geometry Lab, which includes multiple University of San Diego faculty, students and some community volunteers, loaded a rental truck today and began the trek north toward its ultimate destination, a temporary city and community called Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada, the site of this year's Burning Man from Aug. 26 to Sept. 3.

Burning Man, which brings together some 70,000 people from all over the world for a week of exploring self-expression and self-reliance in a desert oasis and features numerous interactive works of art to see and experience, will have a San Diego Geometry Lab project called "Unfolding Humanity."

This interactive project is a metal sculpture that symbolizes the connection and contrast between humanity and technology. The sculpture is a 12 foot by 30-foot dodecahedron with pentagonal walls that unfolds under human power, an engineered design that alludes to Albrecht Durer's 500-year-old unsolved problem on unfolding polyhedra as well as technology's encapsulation of our lives. Through hinged connections along the edges, the dodecahedron can unfold into connected pentagons that will lay flat on the ground. When the structure is closed, the mirrored inner surroundings will make those who visit it feel as though they are at the center of the universe.

The interactive component of a project that honors and celebrates the importance of math and its ability to connect to the humanities is part of the fun.

"We're honoring math, making it more accessible," says Satyan Devadoss, PhD, USD's Fletcher Jones Foundation Professor of Mathematics.

Diane Hoffoss, PhD, is also a USD mathematics professor who loves to see math connect with people to increase not only their appreciation, but also inspire in a newfound way, especially something they can visually experience firsthand.

"When students finish high school, there's a sense that math isn't cool," she said. "I want to help change that. Math is amazing. I love math and what we can do in math is amazing. My hope is to change the attitude nationwide and that can start right here on our (USD) campus."

The San Diego Geometry Lab is a growing collective of mathematicians, engineers, artists and burners who are led by Devadoss and Hoffoss. Hoffoss will be attending Burning Man alongside Engineering Assistant Professor Gordon Hoople. A crew of people will be setting up the structure onsite and then break it down at the event's conclusion. Other faculty members from USD who have and who will contribute to the project are Nate Parde from Theatre Arts and Performance Studies and Theology and Religious Studies Professor Susie Babka.

The project has had a lot of student involvement throughout the year, including some who've now graduated. Engineering students on the project this summer are Sydney Platt, Viktoriya Alekseyeva, Michael Sween, Ava Bellizzi, Nick Cardoza and Alex Splide. Elizabeth Sampson and Christiana Salvosa worked on it during spring semester. Students who created scale models of the project are Kate Rumann and Kiana Gustaferro. Some main crew members are Max Eliott and Jason Good, the latter who assisted with project design. Other contributors include Melissa Cann, Eduardo Ortega, Glenn Moss, Sarina Haghighat, D.D. Lattimore and Quinn Pratt, who started working on early designs but graduated and is now attending UCLA for graduate school. Pratt’s contribution remains visually present, though, as his software artwork is used by the group to better describe it to potential investors and the public at large.

The project is not an inexpensive endeavor. A minimum goal of $40,000 was sought and to date, the amount raised is around $35,000 with some funding still to come to reach the $40,000 mark. The project has had support from multiple sources, including 30-40 part-time volunteers, workspace support by COLAB in Mission Valley and grant support from USD's Applied Math program, the San Diego Collaborative Arts Project (SDCAP), potentially a grant connected to USD's Humanities Center because of its interdisciplinary ways of collaboration, and through general crowdfunding sources.

Furthermore, monies raised aren’t just for Burning Man. Upon the former’s conclusion, the group plans to display the structure at a Makers Faire Oct. 6-7 in Balboa Park and, ultimately, that the structure can have a permanent home somewhere to inspire inquiry and knowledge.

"The San Diego Geometry Lab to bring the public to the edge of the mathematical unknown. The community appreciates some of the beauty inherent in mathematics, but unfortunately, a tremendous amount of art has been based on mathematical ideas that are usually centuries old. Our goal is to show that math is still a vibrant and magnificent subject by creating interesting and interactive art which illuminates some of the great unsolved or cutting edge mathematics of our time," according to a description on the project’s website.

The drive to Burning Man is about a 13-hour process one-way, Hoffoss estimated. The crew left Tuesday with the project and the build is expected to commence soon after arrival Wednesday and done in time for Burning Man's opening day. Hoffoss has attended Burning Man in the past and was involved in a project last year to gain experience and to understand the magnitude of having a project on display at what many consider to be the mecca event across the nation and beyond.

"Burning Man is simply the gold standard for large-scale sculptures, bar none," Devadoss said. "One-half of Silicon Valley is coming to see the newest engineering and artistic feats at Burning Man, and a year-long exhibit at the Smithsonian is showing Burning Man as one of the most influential phenomena in our culture."

Mix the allure and experience showcase that Burning Man is with the fact that a liberal arts educational focus is what helps drive the Unfolding Humanity project, delivers knowledge to the senses that's not often offered for public consumption.

"An artwork such as this, dealing with complicated issues of mathematics, cosmology and engineering and wrestling with the foundational question of what it means to be fully human, can only be birthed with wisdom from the full spectrum of the arts, humanities and sciences," Devadoss said.

— Ryan T. Blystone

To learn more and to support the Unfolding Humanity project, go to:

Software prototype of the Unfolding Humanity project that a group, consisting of USD faculty, students and alumni, are building and displaying at Burning Man Aug. 26-Sept 3.Software prototype of the Unfolding Humanity project that a group, consisting of USD faculty, students and alumni, are building and displaying at Burning Man Aug. 26-Sept 3.

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