Days 30 and 31: Thinking About Symmetries

We left Reno on Tuesday morning and drove…and drove…and drove some more. Seven hours later, we were in Salt Lake City. We drove through the Bonneville Salt Flats in western Utah, which was fascinating because it is the most bleak, desolate place I’ve ever driven through. People complain about driving through the desert of northeastern Arizona, or the endless, flat landscape of west Texas, but going through the Salt Flats gives a whole new perspective on the view out the car window. I wouldn’t say the drive was boring only because it was so completely different than anything I’d seen before.

It looks like this, of course, because virtually nothing can grow in the salty soil, so for 30 miles all you see is this barren white landscape with the hint of greenery in the distance. I feel like we could build an entire course, probably an interdisciplinary one, around this picture and the one I showed earlier from Lassen Volcanic National Park where there was a single, small tree growing above a sulfur vent, but I’m going to have to put that idea on the back burner for another time.

We spent Wednesday in Salt Lake City. In the morning we went to Temple Square, where the Mormon Temple and headquarters is located. While visitors are not allowed in the temple, there are a number of other buildings you can visit, including the Tabernacle. Every day, there is a 30-minute rehearsal/concert performed on the organ in the Tabernacle that is free and open to the public. The chance to hear an 11,623-pipe organ perform in one of the most acoustically sound buildings in the world. (They say that when the building is quiet, a pin dropped at the pulpit can be heard at the back of the room, 170 feet away.) 

Unfortunately for us, they were not performing in the Tablernacle when we were there because they were preparing for a funeral to be held later in the week. Instead, they held the concert in Assembly Hall on their still-impressive organ composed of 3,489 pipes. Both the space and the performance were beautiful.

As I was listening to the performance, I was struck by the symmetries visible in the organ’s construction. As I looked up, I realized it was more than just the organ that was symmetric:

By itself, this organ and the space that houses it are amazing to contemplate from a mathematical perspective, but as has been my habit over the last month, I can’t help but wonder not just what symmetries are present but why they’re present. I sense, if not a full interdisciplinary course, then at least a theme for part of the integrated math courses in the concept of symmetry. 

One of the things I’ve been thinking about this summer is how we can pull topics from our curriculum and shift our focus while still ensuring that our students are prepared for the SAT and ACT. It occurs to me now that symmetry may be a good topic because we can work to algebraic and geometric concepts through it while also extending our work in ways a more traditional curriculum wouldn’t allow for. It’s certainly something to explore….


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