New window displays in Huxley Building weave the story of mathematics


Vanessa Madu, leaning against the windowsill, looking at the new window displays in the Huxley Building

PhD student Vanessa Madu’s designs are now displayed on the third floor of the Huxley Building, engaging visitors with the history of mathematics.

From Pythagoras to the advent of the computer, the Departments of Mathematics and Computing have unveiled new window designs that take visitors on a journey through the rich history of mathematics.

The seven-window display was designed by PhD student, Vanessa Madu (Department of Mathematics), during her Undergraduate degree at Imperial. The designs span over 4000 years of mathematics history and cover a broad range of sub-disciplines such as calculus, knot theory and regression modelling. 

“I love the idea that, regardless of your mathematical inclinations, there is something on these windows that you can geek out about with others,” said Vanessa.

From an everyday necessity to an artform

The Department of Mathematics held an open call for all students to submit designs for the Huxley foyer windows, prompting Vanessa to base her winning entry on a journey through time.

Vanessa Madu standing next to a placard with her poem.
Vanessa Madu also composed a poem to accompany the new window displays. Visitors can see the displays and read the poem in the Huxley Building entrance, by the Sherfield Walkway.

“Mathematics all started out of necessity. We had this great big world that we needed to try and understand,” Vanessa says.

The first few windows depict the invention of the contour plot, used to map terrain at different altitudes, as well as the inception of Greek mathematics from the 7th century BC.

During this time, the study of mathematics was often directly applied to economic activities, such as the movement of goods across long distances or more creative pursuits like art and music. 

“One thing I was surprised by was how early on people became obsessed with pi,” Vanessa said, pointing to early attempts to calculate pi by the Babylonians and ancient Egyptians as far back as 2000 BC.

Rather than being done out of necessity, mathematics was and is also being done because it’s a beautiful thing to do. Vanessa Madu PhD student, Department of Mathematics

The scope of applied mathematics slowly widens to also encapsulate observations of the Universe, such as the rotation and movement of celestial bodies.

Eventually, visitors will see the beginnings of pure mathematics, Vanessa said: “Rather than being done out of necessity, mathematics was and is also being done because it’s a beautiful thing to do. Mathematicians start to move up to any dimension they wanted, be it 3, 4 or 27, just to see what they can do there.”

The designs capture some of the intellectual diversity present within mathematics. 

Pointing to the sometimes “siloed” nature of academia, Vanessa hopes that her designs will encourage interdisciplinary interaction: “By virtue of their placement in the foyer, you wind up sitting next to people from different specialities, and you could end up learning something new.”


Jacklin Kwan

Jacklin Kwan
Faculty of Natural Sciences

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