Clayton Shonkwiler - aka @shonk on is a recent recipient (and he created a super cool acceptance post showing off his prize.) His animations are hypnotizing and I wanted to learn more about the person behind them. I think you'll see that he's just as interesting as his mathematical creations!
Questions with Clayton Shonkwiler
Looking at your curriculum vitae it is readily apparent that mathematics is a dominant force in your life. How old were you when you knew this was going to be the trajectory of your life?
CS: I knew I was good at math from a pretty young age, but it wasn't something I imagined doing for a career until pretty late. Math classes just weren't that interesting to me: success in high school math classes seemed to depend mostly on a kind of low cunning in recognizing which category a given problem fell in and then using the tricks that applied to that class of problem.
During my sophomore year in college, though, I took an Abstract Algebra class and I knew almost immediately that this was something different and far more appealing. Suddenly abstract reasoning was the essential skill, and there was also a lot more freedom and creativity: you could just make up your own operations, you could give things silly names, and you could figure out a crazy proof that the professor and the book couldn't possibly have anticipated. Oh, and you actually had to write complete sentences! That class was my first real introduction to the idea that math is a living, vital domain that you get to explore and discover, as opposed to a set of rigid rules handed down from antiquity.
It would be a bit reductive to say that's when I knew for sure I wanted to be a mathematician, especially since there have been various times since (e.g., much of the first couple years of grad school) where I had serious doubts and misgivings about the whole endeavor, but that class sticks out as a pretty key event.
When did you first start using your skills as a mathematician to create art? What does the art mean to you? And finally, has any of the art you created led to a new insight or purely mathematical application?
CS: I think this is probably the first math-related thing I made which was visually appealing. There was a terrible, pixellated image we were going to use in a paper and I just got annoyed with how ugly it was, so I spent a whole day fighting with Mathematica until I got it to produce something reasonable-looking.
This is the first GIF I made, mostly because I realized it would be easy to turn an animation I'd made for a presentation into a GIF.
Shortly thereafter I was trying to develop an algorithm and the easiest way to see if the output was sane was to export to an animation, so I ended up making a bunch of GIFs like this.
If you scroll to the bottom of my archive you'll see a lot of pretty functional stuff.
I still make things that are directly inspired by my research (here's a recent example ), but I gradually got interested in making art as a pursuit in itself.
Of course, it's a pursuit informed by my mathematical experiences, and most of my GIFs started as explorations of some mathematical concept. Which is a fancy way of saying that at some point I thought "I bet there's a way to make X look cool". That means that for me the meaning of a piece is pretty inextricably linked to the math behind it, but it usually takes a lot of iterations to go from the initial idea to the final result and in that process I tend to follow my emotional reactions. So there's also some emotional meaning, which I sometimes try to communicate in the title.
I do get new mathematical insights in the course of these explorations (for example, in the course of making these hyperbolic geometry GIFs I developed a much better understanding of the connection between hyperbolic and spherical geometry), though nothing that’s led to any new research yet. But I wouldn’t be surprised if some day it does!
You haven’t been in Fort Collins long, but from what I have gathered, it’s got quite a thriving beer culture with a bunch of microbreweries making some interesting things for folks to imbibe. (a). What’s your favorite thing and or place to drink in Fort Collins? (b). On the weekend, have you placed gps trackers on undergrads as they go bar to bar to aid your research in closed random walks?
CS: (a) Fort Collins does have a great beer culture; I'd say the top priorities in town are beer, bikes, and dogs, in some order. I think the best Fort Collins beer I've had is Le Terroir, which is kind of a copout since it's a New Belgium beer, but it's a unique and legitimately excellent sour ale. New Belgium also really knows how to do a brewery tour, though it's obviously not something I do every day or even every month.
My favorite places to have a beer or two are probably: Choice City Butcher, which has ridiculously good sandwiches and a large and well-considered beer selection, Pateros Creek, a tiny brewery with decent beer and a really laid back taproom, and Tap and Handle, which has weird beers and vintage video arcades and is seemingly never crowded. I know I'm leaving out some good places, but I usually stick to bars I can walk to.
My actual favorite place in town to get a drink, though, is Social, which is a fancy cocktail bar. They probably serve beer there, but you'd be a fool to order one. Coppermuse, which is a distillery, is another really interesting place.
(b) That methodology seems unlikely to pass institutional review, but I don't think you'd get very useful data anyway. The walks wouldn't be very random, since inebriated undergraduate brains are arguably highly deterministic, and they would only be closed if you could depend on the subjects making it back to their own beds, which seems like an unmerited assumption.