It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a flourish of Islamic calligraphy! It’s an orgy of nematode worms! Actually, this somehow attractive, seemingly random rat’s nest of squiggly lines is one person’s impression of the cross-disciplinary nature of academics at Marlboro College. That person is mathematics professor Matt Ollis, who is accustomed to assembling somehow attractive, seemingly random squiggly lines in the service of all kinds of cool things (such as in a recent article published with his former student Devin Willmott ’11 called, enigmatically, “On twizzler, zigzag and graceful terraces”). In this case, Matt assembled data from all of the Plans of Concentration of Marlboro students stretching from 1990 to the last academic year. Where the squiggly lines meet at “nodes” represent faculty sponsors, and each squiggly line indicates when more than one faculty member sponsored a student’s Plan.
Getting away from the sort of Rorschach-test impression of a fettuccini explosion, Matt’s chart does a brilliant job of illustrating how very common it is for Marlboro students to combine areas of study in their work. I mean, some paths between faculty members are clearly well-worn, but the veritable nematode’s orgy of possible combinations is what really takes my breath away. If you have never checked it out before, another great illustration of cross-disciplinary Plans over the years can be found in the Virtual Plan Room. The second version of Matt’s chart to the right, a little easier on the eyes, represents just the current faculty and has only one line to connect them, regardless of how many Plans they might have cosponsored.
Now, I can stand about 10 minutes of mathematical calculations before my eyes glaze over. But, being the mathematically energetic individual he is, Matt didn’t stop there, no-no. In the string-art illustration on the left he showed how it would look to organize all of the faculty members to emphasize their distance, cosponsorship-wise, from retired history professor Tim Little. Sort of like “six degrees of Kevin Bacon,” except instead of Kevin Bacon it’s Tim Little, and instead of six degrees of separation it’s, like, three at the most. Matt defines the “Little Number” to be the number of steps any faculty member is away from Tim, and that number is indeed, ahem, “little.” By the way, Matt is teaching a course this spring called Painting by Numbers: Using Data to Visualize Marlboro College, which will use methods of data visualization just like these to look closely at other aspects of life on campus. Did you have any idea math could be this much fun?