Alhambra by the Numbers
The 14th-century Moorish palace in Spain is not only a dramatic architectural wonder. We explain how it’s also an intriguing breakthrough in mathematics.
Paradise on earth. That was the concept behind Nasrid’s Alhambra complex.
After being defeated in a battle in Andalusia 1,000 years ago, a group of Arabs took shelter in a small red castle on a large plateau. This fortress was essentially ignored until the 14th century, when the Nasrid dynasty, the last sultans to inhabit Spain, decided it was time to expand their stronghold. The Christians, after all, were busy crusading their way through Europe, hell-bent on reclaiming the continent in the name of Christ.
Though there was no real master plan for the area, a premium was placed on elegance in the design. While fashions of the eight centuries of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula were incorporated, the distance from architectural trends of the time in the Middle East and the kicky styles of Christian kingdoms informed the overall look, making for one of the most atypical historical sites in the world. Known as the Red One, the Alhambra Palace was renowned as a fertile paradise of reflecting pools and sweeping vistas. Every room was fit for an emir, and followed Islamic custom, which forbade the depiction of people or animals. To create the palace, mathematicians devised intricate variations on the ceramic tiles, in the process defining the laws of math we still use today.
Last year, an Israeli scientist won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals, a lattice of atoms arrayed in a pattern that is ordered but never quite repeats itself. The belief that they existed was inspired by the mosaic patterning at Alhambra. Quasicrystals are now being used to increase the durability of steel, diesel, and even frying pans.
Creativity is just connecting things