The Ambigram

My answer to that ubiquitous question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was always “a Doctor or Martin Gardner” (with the usual follow up “you know, the famous puzzler, mathematician, essayist, magician, and writer extraordinaire??”)

David Suzuki once did a “Nature of Things” documentary on Martin Gardner entitled “Mathe-magic.” The 1 hour special was fascinating beyond my imagination, with discussions about the mathematics of juggling, John Conway’s “Game of Life,” hexa-flexagons, and myriad other mathematical simulacra. (you can actually watch/download the documentary here.)

In one of the introductory scenes, a puzzle designer named Scott Kim began drawing the the first name “Martin” in a fancy script. When he finished, he rotated the paper over 180 degrees, and it read “Gardner.” In-frieking-credible.

Martin Gardner Ambigram

I would later learn text like that was called an AMBIGRAM1 – a word or phrase that can be read in more than one way or from more than a single vantage point.

Peter Newell’s “invertible illustrations” were sort of the precursor to ambigrams (Mental Floss has a nice collection of some of Newell’s work here). The last page in his first book of illustrations, Topsys & Turvys, reads “the end” but also when inverted reads “puzzle”:

THE END and PUZZLE optical illusion

And, ambigrams have shown up in a lot of pop culture over the years:

Ambigrams in Pop Culture

A 3-D ambigram on the cover of Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter; and, rotational ambigrams on the covers of Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons and the special anniversary edition DVD of The Princess Bride

The other day, I re-discovered Erich Friedman’s page of wonderful ambigrams, which can be found here.

Remembering that Martin Gardner documentary, I became inspired to try my hand at an ambigram of my own name and doodled on scraps of paper for what seemed like hours… But, I eventually came up with something. So, here’s my name in two images one of which is just the other but rotated 180 degrees:

ambigram ambigram

Before I could develop an addiction (and start drawing everyone’s name I knew in similar fashion), I did some quick google/flickr searches and the results were disheartening – so many talented, imaginative folks out there.

  1. the term “ambigram” looks like it originated with Douglas Hofstadter []
hromanThe Ambigram

The Three Sphinxes Of Bikini, Salvador Dali

THE THREE SPHINXES OF BIKINI, by Salvador Dali (1947)1

The Three Sphinxes of Bikini, Salvador Dali

Between the years of 1946 and 1958 (after World War II), the United States conducted 23 nuclear tests at the Micronesian atoll, Bikini. The tests caused the radioactive contamination of the entire system of islands. The (roughly) two hundred Micronesians who inhabited the islands were relocated by the US before the tests, and eventually brought back in 1968. The US lost a lawsuit to the Micronesians in the amount of $100 million when it was discovered, ten years later in 1978, that the levels of radioactivity were still dangerously high.

These experimental explosions on the atoll of Bikini inspired Dali to paint the Three Sphinxes of Bikini.

Dali was a Surrealist painter. From the point of view of Expressionism, paintings in general are supposed to emphasize the expression of inner experience instead of providing a more-or-less photographic portrayal of reality. The artist is concerned with the subjective emotions and responses that scenes, objects and/or events arouse. In Surrealism, it goes one step further: it’s the unconscious that is emphasized. Paintings express the workings of the mind by using symbolic imagery and interesting juxtaposition of subject matter.

When looking at the painting, the imagery itself is very striking. There are three figures: a human head, a tree, and a third figure in the distance that could be a human head but looks eerily like the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. In fact, all three figures share the same uncanny configuration of the mushroom cloud. The juxtaposed similarity suggests a strong and unconscious relationship between humanity, nature, and destruction.

When I look at the painting, I can’t help but imagine that the human head is Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” looking through the tree (nature) and straight into the heart of the explosion.

The joint work of the team of scientists he led in the Manhattan Project culminated in the first man-made nuclear explosion in 1945. While witnessing that explosion, Oppenheimer was both filled with AWE

If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one

and simultaneously filled with DREAD

We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another

Now I am become Death
The Destroyer of Worlds

  1. I originally wrote this brief thought on Dali’s painting on my old WordPress blog back in December 2006. For posterity, I wanted to republish it here []
hromanThe Three Sphinxes Of Bikini, Salvador Dali