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What should the first house on the moon look like?

What should the first house on the moon look like? In a project 15 years in the making, Swedish artist and entrepreneur Mikael Genberg has designed an answer, which he hopes to launch in October 2015—that is, if he can crowd-fund-raise the $15 million to build the structure and send it into space. The strange twist is that the house looks just like a house—painted falu red, the color of traditional Swedish country houses, and intended to cut a fancifully quaint contrast with its otherworldly location. There the resemblance to a house ends: It weighs only 22 pounds, is made from a special “space-cloth” stretched over a carbon frame, and will self-construct by inflating in under 15 minutes. (It’s also a bit cozy: 10 feet wide and 8 feet tall.) Even if The Moonhouse never comes to pass, it does kindle a sense of yearning: In a day and age where seemingly every square inch of land here is spoken for, it’s intoxicating to think there are still places in the universe where you can build freely, if you can get to them.

When math really was poetry

Symbols like “+” and “=” are so ingrained that it’s hard to conceive of math without them. But a new book, “Enlightening Symbols: A Short History of Mathematical Notation and its Hidden Powers,” offers a surprising reminder: Until the early 16th century, math contained no symbols at all.

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Author Joseph Mazur explains that many foundational math works, like Euclid’s “Elements” and the early Arab algebra texts, were written entirely in words—and often as metered poetry. The result was cumbersome, as Mazur demonstrates with this example from al-Khwarizimi’s “Algebra,” which was written around 820 AD:

“If a person puts such a question to you as: ‘I have divided ten into two parts, and multiplying one of these by the other the result was twenty-one;’ then you know that one of the parts is thing and the other is ten minus thing.”

Today, we convey the same problem more concisely: x(10-x)=21

Math symbols developed on an ad hoc basis, and many different conventions were proposed and abandoned before the now-standard ones took hold. (For a while, negative numbers were denoted with a waxing moon symbol.) One of the most successful efforts came from the 16th-century Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde. Two hundred pages into his book “The Whetstone of Witte,” he grew tired of the “tedious repetition” of writing “is equal to” over and over again, and proposed in its place the parallel lines we now regard as the equals sign.

Mathematical symbols make complex ideas accessible at a glance—that is, if you know how to read them. And thus begins the problem. Advanced math is expressed, writes Mazur, in “a mire of marks, signs, and symbols” so impenetrable to the untrained mind that it’s like another language—one that its practitioners see as an art form, but in which most of us no longer have access to the poetry.

Rothko gets the ‘Predator’ treatment

At Harvard, a conservator shows digitally projected light altering color.

David L Ryan/ Globe Staff

At Harvard, a conservator shows digitally projected light altering color.

On May 20, the Globe reported on an innovative technique being used at Harvard to restore Mark Rothko murals: Working with engineers at MIT Media Lab’s Camera Culture, officials with the Harvard Art Museums have figured out how to digitally project light onto the sun-damaged canvases, restoring them, pixel by pixel, to their original vivid hues.

Any kind of restoration work is bound to be controversial, and even the impermanent and seemingly benign Rothko technique has attracted critics: “Are you setting yourself up to portray everything like this? Every crack has to be fixed? Every faded color has to be tarted up?” Yale art conservator Paul Whitmore asked in the Globe.

Whitmore’s concern may sound alarmist, but the point he makes has been borne out in other realms. Record labels and film studios frequently release “remastered” versions of long-ago releases that purists hate—a Blu-ray edition of “Lawrence of Arabia,” with slick digital colors, or Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” enhanced by modern sound engineering. Remastering can breathe new life into older works of art, but just like with plastic surgery, it’s easy to take the quest for aesthetic perfection too far.

A 2010 update to the 1987 movie “Predator” was criticized for scrubbing all the grain from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face, making him look, according to Gizmodo, like “some sort of freakish Madame Tussauds version of the original.” Criticism of audio remastering has been even more pronounced. In what’s been dubbed the “loudness war,” sound engineers raise the levels on remastered music, which makes it louder, so that it grabs listeners’ attentions, but detracts from overall sound quality.

Art exhibitions are more insulated from market forces than the movie and music industries, but the technique developed at Harvard presents the same temptations and challenges as remastering—once one painting has been given a beauty lift, how can others not follow suit?

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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