Life of Pi, Death of a Unicorn

In 1992, the New Yorker published an article about David and Gregory Chudnovsky, two mathematicians in New York who built a supercomputer in their apartment in order to find patterns in Pi. Does that sound familiar?

A few months ago, they ran another article on what these two have been up to recently. They’ve been using their supercomputer to stitch digital pictures together. In fact, over two hundred CDs worth of digital pictures. Together they form a picture of “The Hunt of the Unicorn” – apparently one of the most beautiful set of tapestries ever made.

It wasn’t just a question of having lots of RAM:

The tapestries, they realized, had changed shape as they were lying on the floor and being photographed. They had been hanging vertically for centuries; when they were placed on the floor, the warp threads relaxed. The tapestries began to breathe, expanding, contracting, shifting. It was as if, when the conservators removed the backing, the tapestries had woken up. The threads twisted and rotated restlessly. Tiny changes in temperature and humidity in the room had caused the tapestries to shrink or expand from hour to hour, from minute to minute. The gold- and silver-wrapped threads changed shape at different speeds and in different ways from the wool and silk threads.

“We found out that a tapestry is a three-dimensional structure,” Gregory went on. “It’s made from interlocked loops of wool.”

“The loops move and change,” David said.

“The tapestry is like water,” Gregory said. “Water has no permanent shape.”

The photographers had placed a thin sheet of gray paper below the edge of the part of the tapestry they were shooting. Each time they moved the camera, they also moved the sheet of paper. Though the paper was smooth and thin, it tugged the tapestry slightly as it moved, creating ripples. It stretched the weft threads and rotated the warp threads—it resonated through the tapestry. All this made the tiles impossible to join without the use of higher mathematics and It.

It’s a great article. This is why I love the New Yorker: where else would I find an article like this?

(Via Jason Kottke.)