Jürgen Richter-Gebert spent six months studying gold: He bought glitter pens at stationery shops, and studied jewelry store displays. At home, the mathematician moved gold bracelets and rings back and forth, watching the play of light on the surface. All of these efforts related to a single detail: In his “iOrnament: The Art of Symmetry” app, he wanted the gold on the screen to shimmer like the real metal when the screen or the user’s head moved.
The head of the Chair for Geometry and Visualization at TUM does not like to compromise when it comes to software, exhibits and exhibitions. “I set goals that I regard as challenging. I want to overcome boundaries and open doors,” says Prof. Richter-Gebert. The shimmering effect he has achieved with the gold in his iOrnament symmetry app is remarkably realistic. The app uses a sensor to detect movements, which are translated into shifts in the displayed gold color. The effect has delighted users and inspired artists and designers in their work. The renowned English calligrapher Seb Lester has used iOrnament to create works viewed millions of times in social media. Some of Lester's creations are probably the most elaborately ornamented letters ever produced. “It impresses me to see how the same app is used by children, artists, researchers and even a professional designer – with every one of them doing a little bit of math,” says Richter-Gebert.
Inspiring a sense of wonder
Perfection is also the benchmark for many other projects undertaken by Jürgen Richter-Gebert: “I’m not satisfied with mediocrity,” he says. “I want to inspire a sense of wonder. I love hearing people say: I’ve never seen anything like that.” He is passionate about all of his projects: The design for the interactive La La Lab, which demonstrates the connection between music and mathematics, his handmade exhibits for MiMa, the Museum for Minerals and Mathematics in Oberwolfach, cooperative projects with the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) in New York, the ix-quadrat mathematics exhibition at the TUM Garching campus, and his video lectures for students during the COVID pandemic. Jürgen Richter-Gebert also co-authored the mathematical visualization software Cinderella, operates the MatheVital website, and plays a decisive role in the touring exhibition IMAGINARY. Tens of thousands of users have downloaded the digital resources he has developed, including the free apps “TUM interactive” and “Math to Touch”, as well as the interactive digital edition of the book on fractions he created jointly with the TUM School of Education.
In recognition of his tireless efforts to promote the understanding of mathematics among researchers, practitioners and the general public and to bring the power and beauty of mathematics to life, Jürgen Richter-Gebert was honored with the Communicator Award 2021 by the German Research Foundation DFG and the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft. The prize includes a €50,000 cash award. For Jürgen Richter-Gebert, it represents recognition for more than 20 years of creating various formats to make mathematics exciting – mostly in his spare time.
Simple is boring
In the app he developed to mark the 150th anniversary of TUM, containing visualizations of the work of every TUM department, Jürgen Richter-Gebert stretched the boundaries of the existing technologies. “I wanted to push our current visualization software to its limits”, says Prof. Richter-Gebert with a smile. He definitely succeeded: The app contains 3D animations of hands with details such as veins and arteries, interactive visualizations of flow effects, lighting simulations for buildings and much more. To provide his students with material during the Covid pandemic, he made numerous films to present the contents of his lectures. A one-hour lecture represents around 17 hours of work: planning, writing texts, filming, creating animations, cutting.
When Richter-Gebert fails in a project, it happens at a very early stage: “When planning an exhibition, for example, I never start with a concept where I know it will work,” says the mathematician. “I always begin with the most difficult exhibits.” He calls them the ‘target breaking points’: Once he has cleared these hurdles, he knows that everything else is feasible. He therefore creates a to-do list, sorted from hard to easy. He also makes a point of setting deadlines: “When there is a little pressure, I just get better results.” That can even cost him some sleep, because he often works until three in the morning.
Relentless creative drive
Richter-Gebert’s parents noticed their son’s strong interest in mathematical effects at an early age. When they saw how much he liked trying things out with magnets and pins, mirrors and lenses, they gave him experimental kits and let him watch science shows on television. “I was especially fascinated by the ‘Querschnitt’ series with the professor and journalist Hoimar von Ditfurth when I was in primary school. He made scientific ideas very easy to understand,” recalls Jürgen Richter-Gebert. He submitted several successful entries to the national science contest and wrote software for the major symmetry exhibition in Darmstadt – kicking off a career in research and decades of work dedicated to making mathematics understandable even to non-specialists.
The mathematician has a big dream for the future: “It’s a big, dark room.” Inside, he envisions a mathematical exhibition space to explain the connection between mathematics and light. Perhaps the Communicator Award will help him turn his dream into a reality.
Contacts to this article:
Prof. Jürgen Richter-Gebert
Technische Universität München
Lehrstuhl für Geometrie und Visualisierung
Tel: +49-(0)-89-289 18354