January 23, 2001–Wolfram Research was the major corporate sponsor of one of the 15 international teams selected to participate in this year’s snow sculpture competition. In Breckenridge, Colorado, from January 16 to 20, teams from around the world came together to compete in this 11th annual competition. The Wolfram Research-sponsored Minnesota team constructed White Narcissus, a sculpture designed by team member Robert Longhurst.
The design is a complex wraparound shape related to saddle-like shapes (minimal surfaces) that are formed by soap film when wire frame is dipped into soapy water. The idea of using saddle shapes to enhance structural strength allows the sculpting of very thin shapes with complicated twists. Computer graphics are used to view the shape from different angles and to learn more about its subtle details.
On Tuesday, January 16, each of the four-person teams was allocated a 20-ton, 10 x 10 x 12-foot block of snow from which to create the sculpture using only nonpower hand tools. The Minnesota team members included Longhurst, an experienced wood and stone sculptor; returning members Stan Wagon and Dan Schwalbe, faculty from the Mathematics Department of Macalester College; and John Bruning of Tropel Corporation. Matthias Weber, a mathematician from the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, served as the nonsculpting team photographer and manager.
Weber, who worked the sculpture in Mathematica said, “Stan Wagon showed me photographs of this sculpture in October 2000 and asked me whether I could come up with a parameterization of this surface. The sculpture looked quite complicated; from a single photograph it is even hard to say how many boundary curves there are. Also, it seemed as if there were two straight lines on the surface, a very useful thing when one is looking for a parameterization of a minimal surface.” The “somewhat surprising results” of Weber’s investigations can be found online.
Even though the Minnesota team failed to place in this year’s competition, team captain Wagon said, “We had great fun constructing it; the weather was super, the team worked well together, and we still love the piece!”