Sally, PA to the Head of Department, has the hardest of mathematical tasks in Oxford Mathematics, namely the herding of mathematicians. She also asks the toughest question of the year:
"Are we doing a Christmas card this year?"
Because, of course, Sally doesn't mean "are we"; no, she means "what are we", as in "what are we going to do for a Christmas card this year?"
The External Relations Manager, recipient of the emailed question, sighs. The 50th email of the day, hot on the heels of diary invites to committees a year in advance and emails from people claiming to have found a simpler proof of Fermat's Last Theorem. Another unwanted task surely? Or at least a difficult one to fulfil?
Actually, no. Not unwanted at all, and certainly not hard for one simple reason: mathematicians.
Mathematicians are often portrayed as inward-looking, communicating in a forbidden language, far removed from imagination and creativity. But of course such clichés are not just untrue but misunderstand the nature of mathematics and mathematicians. It is an intensely creative subject, requiring imagination and conjecture allied to descriptive precision; and all imbued with an instinctive desire to find not only the best but the most elegant answer. This was no tricky task because there was a whole department of creativity to draw on.
So we launched our annual competition. A small prize was offered in return for a mathematically themed card. November is a busy month (well, everyone says every month is busy but November seems to really take its toll), but nonetheless the answers came pouring in. Jane suggested Farey diagrams would make lovely baubles; Damon proposed beautiful patterns formed by colour coded plots of the absolute values of polynomials with all coefficients +/- 1 evaluated over C; Joo-Hyun went for an animation of the generation of a Christmas tree with a few parameterised surfaces; while Elle, a member of our student support team, went for a Penrose triangle Christmas tree. And there were many more.
But in the end, with the advice of our inestimable designers at William Joseph, we went for Marina Simonian's suggestion, a Fourier transform Christmas tree, feeling it would best lend itself to animation. And so began a volley of email exchanges between Marina and Stéphane at William Joseph as they worked up the idea. Was it all becoming too much? Marina gave a succinct answer:
"When you love maths, it's fine."
You can see the final version in the video below and below that, a short explanation from Marina. Thank you to everyone involved.