Belgian town of De Panne blunders with artwork
Unfortunate miscalculation
This is a translation and slightly adapted version of a paper that appeared in the Dutch popular science magazine EOS on February 21, 2013.



Since about a year, an artwork by Norbert Francis Attard, based on the mathematical Fibonacci series, is supposed to embellish the Belgian coastal town of De Panne. Unfortunately, Attard did not count well.


Artwork by Norbert Francis Attard in the Belgian town of De Panne

100,000 euro in concrete
Attard's work "Boundaries of Infinity" was installed last summer in the town of De Panne as part of an art triennial at the Belgian coast, called "Beaufort". The Maltese artist described his work as "based on the Fibonacci numbers and the full forms of the golden section". Reading this, a mathematician already starts to shiver. Sure, the sums 1 + 1 = 2, 1 + 2 = 3, 2 + 3 = 5, 3 + 5 = 8, ..., produce the Fibonacci sequence 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, ... and their divisions 3/2 = 1.5, 5/3 = 1.666..., 8/5 = 1.6; ... tend to 1.618..., that is, the golden ratio. But what 'full forms' of the golden section are, is vague, to say the least. The artist's neologism certainly does not belong to the mathematical vocabulary.

Still, local culture officer Geert Vanthuyne added more to it at the inauguration of the artwork: "The mathematical theory of the golden ratio already existed since antiquity, and embodies the ideal proportions in a building or a structure". That is not so. There is no scientific evidence that the golden ratio was important for aesthetics and that would reveal 'ideal' beauty. Only 150 years ago, Adolf Zeising (1810-76) made up the story a rectangle with a ratio of 1 to 1.618... would be the most aesthetic rectangle and ever since the myth artists would have use this ratio was repeated (in so much in recent times a few artists effectively did). However, it does not help contesting the pseudoscientific nonsense of the golden section - just like the clash against astrology or paranormal phenomena is a lost battle too. Moreover, engaging the discussion does not bring up anything, except for the artist, who collected 100,000 euros.


Look at the last line on this picture...

Error
Certainly, the implementation in concrete pleases the eye, and it nicely translates the austere beauty of mathematics. But then one would expect seeing the mathematical perfection it wants to convey. And that certainly is not the case: the initial sum 1 + 1 = 2 is shown on the top of the artwork, but when it reaches the numbers 1,597 and 2,584, they are added as 4,541, while it should have been 4,181. Next, this error is continued in all of the following numbers until the last one on the sculpture, 175,896,661. They are all wrong, all of them. The error increases fast, though initially it is "only" 360, but in each of the following sums, the 360 is multiplied by the next Fibonacci number. Eventually, the error sums up to 175,896,661 - 165,580,141 = 10,316,520 = 360 x 28,657.

Mario Merz
There are quite a few 'Fibonacci Artworks' - apparently mathematics almost exclusively inspires established artists by this number sequence and golden ratio. A more subtle work bears the name "Fibonacci Swings", and it is by the Dutch artist Roland de Jong Orlando. The Fibonacci structure is not too obvious, and so the viewer is invited to think, and moreover the artwork is correct. De Jong cares about both aspects - depth and accuracy, and he is disappointed, for example, about an error in the work of Arte Povera artist Mario Merz (1925-2003), famous for his neon Fibonacci artworks in Turin (Italy) and Turku (Finland). More precisely, there is an artwork consisting only of Fibonacci additions on a white background in the art catalogue for the Basel Kunsthalle in which De Jong noticed Merz properly worked out the sequence 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, ... all the way up to 433,494,437 and 701,408,733, but then added these numbers to 1,134,903,160. Merz continued his additional hubris to 139,583,861,555 (at least, since the last line is, perhaps intentionally, unclear), and that should have been 139,583,862,445.



De Jong’s Fibonacci Swings

Mathematicians care little about such computational mistakes, as they make them often themselves. It was only because of De Jong's remark about Merz that the error in De Panne struck my mind. Yet, if, as artists think, golden section-nonsense is 'Mathematics', then at least they should respect the words of the British mathematician and Nobel Prize Bertrand Russell (1872-1970): "Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty - a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture". In De Panne the sculpture is austere, but not the mathematics.


Click here for more mathematical art by Roland de Jong.


Updates after the publication of the original Dutch paper
1. The Flemish newspaper "Het Nieuwsblad" reported about it, and contacted artist Norbert Francis Attard. His reaction was: "Oups, a mistake? Well, that certainly was not my intention, I did not know. I did the calculations myself, and apparently I have been inaccurate".
2. The Mayor of the town of De Panne, Ann Vanheste, reacted too: "If there is an error on that artwork, then the artist will have to correct it", she said. "People get to see enough rubbish."
3. Attard reacted laconically: "Whether I should change it? I don't think so: it is indeed a work of perfection and infinity. But it is man-made ... so there is a bug in it... In itself that fits perfectly with what I wanted to say". (Uh ... did not he want to say exactly the opposite?)
4. Perhaps students and engineers making a mistake or drivers having a car accident can try out Attard's excuse: "Sorry, 'man-made', so a mistake could be expected", but it seems Attard will not get rid of it with such a simple explanation. "We will start a procedure to see how we can make the artist correct the error", concluded Mayor Vanheste.
5. Dutch mathematician Michiel Doorman (Freudenthal Institute for Science and Mathematics Education) came up with an explanation that almost surely explains the error, especially in view of Attard's confession. Attard probably switched the numbers 5 and 9 when adding 1597 and 2584 to 4541: 1957 + 2584 is indeed 4541. So it would be a simple often occurring typing error when using the calculator. But shouldn't 100,000 euros have motived Attard to check the computations at least once?
6. The press asked for my reaction too. I concluded: "Oh, the tower of Pisa has a little mistake too and for that reason it became famous. Who knows, perhaps now there will be more tourists in De Panne. This way, a mathematical problem could boost, for once, a local economy of a coastal tourist town."
7. You can watch a TV report in Dutch on the regional channel "Focus WTV" here.