networks in expanding cultural spaces, part I

new yorker image III.jpg

This is the story of how an unlikely solution, two mathematical brothers from Russia, found an improbable problem, digital images of a Unicorn tapestry. What connects them is a Rube Goldberg mechanism that includes The New Yorker magazine, a real estate magnet, a hedge fund manager, a MET curator and his wife. As we will see, the chances of this particular solution finding this particular problem were astronomically small. Or were they?

The story. Two brothers, born in Kiev, take up residence in New York City, where they lived hand to mouth on the outskirts of the academic world and devote themselves to mathematical problems of great interest but small promise. The brothers Chudnovsky, Gregory and David, built a computer out of mail order parts, installed it in Gregory’s living room and set to the task of calculating pi to two billion decimal places. Twenty-six fans were needed to make Gregory’s apartment habitable in the summer time.

In 1992, The New Yorker wrote an article about the Chudnovsky brothers and their story attracted the attention of Jeffrey H. Lynford, a real estate tycoon. Lynford put up money enough to install the brothers in their own research institute at Polytechnic University where the brothers built a still larger computer.

About 10 years later, the Chudnovsky brothers were attending a party held by Errol Rudman, a hedge-fund manager and a MET patron. Also in attendance was Walter Liedtke, a curator at the MET and his wife, Diana, a math teacher. Walter and Diana wondered whether their fellow guests might not represent a solution to a problem at the MET.

Several years before, the MET had taken digital photographs of a set of tapestries known as “The Hunt of the Unicorn.” (These were woven around 1500 and held for centuries by the La Rochefoucauld family before coming to the US, thanks to a Rockefeller purchase, in 1937.) The tapestries were photographed in 3 x 3 foot sections with the idea that the resulting ’tiles” would be electronically reassembled in a “faithful” image. But the digital record was very large (filling two hundred CDs) and reassembly proved impossible. Eventually, this problem was found to conceal a still more vexing problem: that the tapestries had shifted during the photographic process so that the tiles could not be reassembled. Only higher mathematics, and, as it turned out, two brothers from Russia, could put the tapestries back together again. And of course they did, using their new supercomputer to perform what the New Yorker calls “vast seas of calculations upon each individual pixel in order to make a complete image of [the] tapestry.”

This story covers a lot of ground, culturally, and it brings together really diverse elements. The temporal dimension stretches from the 16th century to the present day. The geographic one takes in Russia, France and the US. We’ve got diverse players: real estate tycoons, a prince of capital, a museum curator, mathematicians. We’ve got diverse institutions: a research institute, the New Yorker, the MET, an ancient French family, a look in from the Rockefellers. Badly written, I don’t see any reason why this couldn’t be a Dan Brown novel.

Diverse elements link implausibly (otherwise they wouldn’t be diverse). This is the Rube Goldberg aspect, with each connection apparently a most delicate, most implausible hinge. Working backwards, the ‘tapestry” problem cannot find its “brothers” solution unless the brothers meet a math teacher whose husband happens to be a MET curator who happens to come to lunch at the home of a prince of capital who happens, presumably, to know a real estate magnet, who happens to read a story in the New Yorker about two brothers who happened to come to the US and build a supercomputer in their living room.

I will supply Part II tomorrow. For those of you who have finished the Times Cross Word puzzle, here’s another. The diversity of contemporary culture continues to grow and we are now, in the words of one book on the topic of networks, “small pieces loosely joined.” But it is also true that new technologies, the web, email, blogs among them, have created new, more powerful way of casting connections across these diverse cultural spaces.

The question is this: which is growing faster: the universe or the networks?

I liked the Chudnovsky story because it might serve as a way of thinking about the question in, er, question.


Preston, Richard. 2005. Capturing the Unicorn. The New Yorker. April 8, 2005. pp. 28-33.

Weinberger, David. 2002. Small Pieces Loosely Joined. Cambridge: Perseus.

4 thoughts on “networks in expanding cultural spaces, part I

  1. dilys

    Well, this blog is an idea-magnet/magnate.

    I haven’t networked in the kinds of circles you describe, but the internet — professional forums, blogs, access to professors through university web sites — has certainly increased my access for pleasure and problem-solving.

    And, I like the word / category Plenitude!

  2. Carol Gee

    One of the great values of thinking about connections is the “Grand Ah-Ha!’s” our brains get from making sanity of insanities. Seeing patterns, making connections, discovering synchronicity makes many of us bubble. I get these pleasures because my brain is organized in boxes where info bits get stored by category. The benefit is sense making or discovery. The risk is stereotypical thinking. I loved your graphic! And I visit your blog regularly.

  3. cmb

    I’m reading Dan Brown for the first (and last) time. You nailed him spot-on. The rest of the tale, however, is well over my head, but fascinating nonetheless (or perhaps therefore?).

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