North Central College alumnus discusses the value of liberal arts disciplines

May 29, 2014

A lively discussion of the intersections of art, mathematics and nature led by Dr. Satyan Devadoss ’93 set the stage for College’s 17th annual Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research on May 13. Devadoss’ keynote address, “The Shape of Nature: Bees, Trees, Origami,” encouraged the audience to think about how art and nature reflect mathematical precision and, more importantly, how scholars should use this inspiration to cross disciplines to collaborate.

“We all need to see a blending of ideas, not just those from our fields of study,” Devadoss told the audience of North Central College students, faculty, staff and visitors. “It’s crucial for us to switch gears from one (discipline) to another.”

Devadoss, a professor of mathematics at Williams College and a mathematics major at North Central, enjoys studying art and sculpture as part of his scholarly work in shapes and geometry.  In his presentation, he spoke about artists like Leonardo da Vinci, who was a scientist and mathematician but created some of the greatest art in world history.  Among his examples of sculptors, he talked about Anish Kapoor, who designed the famous Cloud Gate in Chicago.  Switching gears to focus on nature, Devadoss discussed the geometry of honeycomb structures. “Nature is really good at being efficient,” he said.

Devadoss continued to weave together the liberal arts disciplines, emphasizing the importance of studying topics outside of one’s major field of study. “Don’t box yourself in,” he told the audience. “The classes you take outside your major can influence you.”

His most memorable courses at North Central College included Math, Music and Art, an interdisciplinary course taught by Richard Wilders, Marie and Bernice Gantzert Professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of mathematics. A class called Aesthetics, taught by David Fisher, professor of philosophy, was another favorite. “The primary question we considered was, ‘Who tells us what art is?’” Devadoss said. “By the end of the class, we didn’t need to know (Fisher’s) answer to that question. We discovered it ourselves. That’s the sign of an amazing teacher.”

Devadoss graduated summa cum laude from North Central with a B.S. in mathematics and minor in physics. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from The Johns Hopkins University. His work and teaching have earned national recognition and support from multiple organizations, including the National Science Foundation. In 2008, he was honored with North Central’s Alumni Recognition Award.

On sabbatical for the 2013-2014 academic year, Devadoss is serving as visiting professor at Stanford University investigating computational topology, using the shape of data to extract meaning. He continues to speak at a variety of universities and organizations, including Pixar, Google, Lucas Film and the Veritas Forum. He is the son of North Central College Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Dr. R. Devadoss Pandian.