So that’s how they did it

September 17, 2008

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Intricate tiled designs like the one above are the foundation of Muslim art, yet they have always confounded anyone who admires them. How, they wonder, did ancient artists execute these elaborate geometric designs?

SFU professor emeritus Len Berggren finally has the answer after completing the first translation of portions of a book written in the 10th century by Iranian mathematician Abu al-Wafa’ al-Buzjani.

The Essentials of Mathematical Construction for Artisans, a tome of several hundred pages originally written in ink on parchment paper, discusses everything from tools of the trade – such as the compass and set square – to how to resolve various tiling design problems using geometry.

"People who have studied Islamic art thought it was very much motivated by mystical concerns and other-worldly matters," says Berggren, who spent two years translating most of the book. "But really, these artisans were superb geometers and many of them were doing quite surprising geometric construction for that time."

Berggren will speak about his findings at a meeting of the American Mathematical Society Oct. 4, 3:00 pm at UBC. For more information visit
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