Your Final Exam

POSTED BY , ON January 19, 2012, 23 COMMENTS

Several years ago, Hilary Thayer Hamann published a wonderful book called Categories On the Beauty of Physics. The book, which I highly recommend, beautifully blended accessible explanations of various physics topics with illuminating selections from literature and fine art. (Paintings from the Art Institute’s collection were used for the topics “momentum,” “orbit,” and “particle.”) Subsequent volumes covering other scientific disciplines were planned, but alas, there is still only one book in the series.

This great book came to mind one day as I was walking through Contemporary Drawings from the Irving Stenn Jr. Collection, an exhibition on view in galleries 124-127 until February 26. It is plain to see that many of the drawings in the exhibition relate to mathematics, including arithmetic, geometry, patterns, and codes. It struck me, though, just how many of the drawings might be used to literally describe or illustrate traditional math problems like we’ve all seen in school. Imagine the wonderful textbooks that might result from collaborations between educators, artists, and museum curators…

Just for fun, I wrote a few math problems for some of the drawings in the exhibition. These problems probably miss the point of the drawings and definitely fall short as a useful educational tool. But, for the one or two of you who relish getting extra math homework from art museum blogs: enjoy!

Just to make things interesting, the first person who submits a comment below with the correct answers to all three problems will receive a complimentary copy of the exhibition catalogue. So sharpen your pencils and get to work! You may begin.

#1: Based on Mel Bochner, Study for Double Solid Based on Cantor’s Paradox, 1966

A solid form is constructed out of small blocks. Each small block is a cube having dimensions 1 ism x 1 ism x 1 ism. (An “ism” is a made-up unit of measure).  There are no hollow cavities inside the form. The entire solid form, which is 15 ism tall, is cut along a plane of symmetry into two pieces, as shown above. What is the volume of each half of the solid form?

#2 Based on Robert Moskowitz, Red Cross, 1986

A cross-shaped tank holding 600 gallons of red paint sits in the middle of a large white room. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the tank suddenly begins to leak from all twelve of its vertical faces. If half of the faces each leak at a constant rate of 1 gallon every 3 minutes, and the other half of the faces each leak at a constant rate of 1 gallon every 6 minutes, how long will it take until the tank is half empty?

#3 Based on Robert Mangold, Circle In and Out of a Polygon 2, 1973

A regular hexagon is inscribed inside a circle, which is itself inscribed inside a square. An irregular hexagon is formed by half of the square and half of the inscribed hexagon, as shown above. If the radius of the circle is 1 unit, what is the area of this irregular hexagon?

EXTRA CREDIT: Write your own math problem based on a work in the Art Institute’s collection and submit it to If we get enough problems, we will post a few of our favorites. Problems can be easy, hard, serious, funny, or whatever. Be creative. Have fun.


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The Missing Link

POSTED BY , ON February 16, 2011, 10 COMMENTS

You are a curatorial assistant helping to put together an exhibition puzzlingly titled, Chain Links: Questionable Connections in Art. Although the theme of the exhibition has never been entirely clear, you have been told that many of artworks relate somehow to other works in the exhibition. The curator has even prepared a map showing how the works connect to each other. With only a few hours until your deadline to submit the final list of works in the show, you suddenly realize that the map file on your cursed computer has been corrupted, obscuring the identity of several of the works. Using your knowledge of art, the museum’s online collections database, and your wits, you must figure out which works are missing from the map. Click here to download.

Notes: The map is spread over two pages, with the bottom edge of the first page connecting to the top edge of the second page.  All of the missing works (labeled A-L) are in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, and are listed in the online collections database.

Hat tip to Chicago’s own The Puzzler, who inspired this puzzle with his recent series of chain-building contests.  For previous museum-themed puzzles from our blog, go herehere, and here.


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POSTED BY , ON December 17, 2010, Comments Off on SCVNGR

Growing up, I always loved scavenger hunts. Who didn’t? The challenge of finding hidden clues, the satisfaction in figuring out what they mean, the ultimate reward of completing the hunt. Unfortunately, once you’re past the age of 12 or so, games of this sort become increasingly scarce. In fact, most games start to fade away, and soon enough you find yourself consumed with activities that clearly fall into the “work” category: schoolwork, housework, paperwork.

But with the advent of the now nearly ubiquitous smart phone, games are enjoying a digital renaissance. I can’t get on the Blue Line without seeing Angry Birds or Doodle Jump being played on a screen nearby. Big box stores encourage you to “check-in” on Foursquare to redeem points and get coupons. And let’s not even talk about Farmville.

One of the newest—and in my opinion, most exciting—additions in the world of smart phone game-apps from a museum perspective is SCVNGR (pronounced the same as if the vowels were there). It’s a game about going places, doing challenges, and earning points. The people at SCVNGR have worked hard to make sure awesome institutions are involved, and they’ve done some pretty cool stuff already. We recently set up some quick, easy challenges on the Art Institute page and encourage you to try them out! We also welcome your tips and comments, which you can leave for fellow SCVNGR players by checking-in during your next visit. Right now you’ll earn 2 points for every challenge you complete, and while real world redemption of those points is currently TBD, we’re hoping to have some rewards in place in the next few weeks.

Download SCVNGR for free to your iPhone, iPod Touch, or Android (we hear Blackberry is coming soon!) and happy hunting!

—Jocelin S., Social Media Coordinator


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Sol-ve this LeWitt Puzzle

POSTED BY , ON October 28, 2010, 5 COMMENTS

The large geometric Sol LeWitt piece in the new temporary exhibition Lewis Baltz: Prototypes gave me an idea for yet another puzzle.  This one tests your research and math skills.  You can (and should) complete this puzzle online, although I strongly encourage you to come see the Baltz exhibition, and the LeWitt piece, in person.  The puzzle:

1.     Sol LeWitt’s Nine-part Modular Cube consists of a three dimensional grid of cubes 9 squares high, 9 squares wide, and 9 squares deep.  How many different cubes of any size can be found in the piece?

HINT: Figure out how many cubes there are of each possible size 1x1x1 (729 cubes) through 9x9x9 (1 cube), and add them all up.  An additional hint may be found near the end of this document.

2.     Taking the answer from Question #1 (let’s call the answer “n“), find the name of the artist associated with the nth piece acquired by the Art Institute in 1922 for its permanent collection.

HINT: Once you know how the museum’s accession numbers are formed, courtesy of Annie M., then you can perform a search using the museum’s online collections website.

3.     Taking the answer from #2, find the number of pages in a 1992 book about that artist in the Art Institute’s library.

HINT: The museum’s Ryerson and Burham Libraries have an online catalog.

4.     Taking the answer from #3 (let’s call the answer “x”), find the title of  xth piece acquired by the Art Institute in 2008.  Finally, for the win, who is the lead actress in the 2004 movie of the same title? Leave it in the comments!

Sol LeWitt. Nine-part Modular Cube, 1977. Ada Turnbull Hertle Fund. © 2008 The Estate of Sol LeWitt.

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