Program Paints Portraits by the Numbers

by Sue Angell

Biographical Information:
B.A., Oberlin College (mathematics)
• M.A., Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (operations research and statistics)
• Ph.d., Yale University (operations research
)

Department of Mathematics

FEBRUARY 26, 2003--Robert Bosch '85 doesn't relegate the study of mathematics to a classroom; instead, he surrounds himself with artwork that was designed using mathematics. Bosch, a professor of mathematics, has written a computer program that allows him to process a variety of data and create portraits of people--famous and not so famous--out of dominoes.

"Several years ago, I read an article about an artist and computer scientist named Ken Knowlton who used four sets of double-nine dominoes to construct a portrait of Marilyn Monroe," he says. "At the time, I thought it was a pretty interesting trick, but I later realized that I could create large-scale domino portraits with up to 100 complete sets of dominoes by using integer programming, a commonly used tool in the field of operations research."

Bosch wrote a computer program that takes black-and-white target images and 'dominizes' them. Initially, the program converts an image into thousands of little squares (like pixels on a computer screen), and labels them with numbers between zero and nine--zero being black, nine being white, and the remaining numbers being different shades of gray. The computer then searches for an arrangement of dominoes that matches up well with the numbers that describe the image.

Using this program, Bosch has constructed dozens of portraits and several installations, including one of Monroe that hangs outside the Mathematics Department's office in King, and another of Martin Luther King, Jr., that is being hung at Eastwood Elementary School. Bosch also launched an online company, dominoartwork.com, that specializes in creating prints and posters using his program.

"What I really like about this kind of project is that it uses dominos in an unexpected and unintended way," says Bosch.

A Q&A with Robert Bosch