What makes someone a master of mathematics or science? (Olafur Eliasson)


Students will research noted mathematical and scientific masters and identify the common features that have made them masters of their field.


•   If helpful to do so, offer a brief introduction of Olafur Eliasson and his work as both scientific and artistic.

•   Show 0:45–5:40 (Ch. 2) of the Eliasson video, where he wonders “what makes good artists.” We can also ask what makes good mathematicians and good scientists. What do great masters in art and science share?

•   Divide students into pairs or small groups of 3–4.

•   Assign each group one of the following figures:

  • Euclid
  • Pythagoras
  • Hypatia of Alexandria
  • Galileo
  • Sir Isaac Newton
  • Charles Darwin
  • Marie Curie
  • Albert Einstein
  • Stephen Hawking
  • Rosalyn Yalow

•   Using online resources, ask each group to research its assigned figure and identify such basic information as when and where the person lived and the field and specific accomplishments for which the person is best known.

•   Ask students to discuss the following questions:

  • How long did the person study the field before becoming known as a master?
  • Did s/he have any particular mentors, or other masters, who helped him/her on his/her journey to mastery?
  • Did the person have to overcome any particular obstacles in his/her journey to mastery?
  • How did the person influence others in the field?
  • Why do you think we are still talking about this person today?

•   Show 6:30–10:48 (Ch. 4) of the Eliasson video, where he talks about participating in the world through creation and discovery. How are scientists like artists in discovering new ways of connecting with the world? How does mastery in a field relate to innovation in that field?

•   Ask each group to create a concept web for its figure, identify specific knowledge, skills, discoveries, accomplishments, personality traits, or any other features the group feels contributed to this person being considered a “master” of his/her field. (For example: “got good grades in school,” “spent many hours in the laboratory,” “wrote many books,” “got along well with other people,” etc.)

•   After each group has conducted its investigation, the instructor will draw a new concept web on the board, Smartboard, etc. Poll students for the terms they identified in regard to the figure they researched.

•   Discuss with students which terms seem to appear most frequently and share ideas about why that might be.


Based on the class’s findings, ask students to define what it means to be a mathematical or scientific “master.” Discussion questions may include whether mastery in math and science seems to involve the same steps of passion, perseverance, and practice as is the case in the arts; whether they believe that scientists and mathematicians (such as artists and writers) are born rather than made; whether achievement in science and math is valued as much or more among their friends as in the arts; whether it’s possible to become famous or a celebrity in science and mathematics. You may wish to conclude by viewing 28:05–29:17 (Ch. 8) of the Eliasson video and considering the role of tradition and traditional ideas. What does he mean when he says “you do not make art in this way”? Does this idea relate to science and mathematics as well?