Father Magnus Wenninger, Mathematician
PHOTOS BY DEBBIE CARLOS
The folks who rank as internet celebrities in Sight Unseen’s world — usually those with a killer eye and a massive following on Tumblr or Instagram — would no doubt seem obscure to most. But even our regular readers might be surprised by today’s unconventional yet equally influential story subject. A few years ago, after stumbling across some articles about mathematician Father Magnus Wenninger on the web, we added him to our “Minnesota” file, whose sole other occupant at the time was RO/LU; earlier this summer, we finally had an occasion to open said file when SU contributor Debbie Carlos asked if she could shoot anything for us there. Carlos was game enough to track down the nonagenarian priest — who became a cult figure in the mathematics world (and later in the online world) for his elaborate paper-polyhedron models — in his home at St. John’s Abbey outside Minneapolis. Not only did she photograph Wenninger and his works, she got him to open up about his history and his methodology as well.
Do you get very many visitors?
Not many, but occasionally. Everybody knows me through the internet.
Can you tell us more about your background?
I grew up in Wisconsin, and went to a Catholic school, and in 8th grade my mother said I ought to be a priest. She sent me to St. John’s prep school when I was 13, right here. I went all through prep school and university here, and when I got ordained, the Abbot says, “Father Magnus, I want you to be a teacher.” I said, “What am I supposed to teach?” “We just started a school in the Bahamas,” he said. “They’ll tell you when you get there.” When I got there, the headmaster said, “I need a math teacher and a physics teacher. Which do you want?” “I’ll take the math,” I said. I taught for 25 years in the classroom and spent another 10 years in the office, doing the accounting. Then I came back to St. John’s, and I’ve been here for 30 years. I’m 94 years old. All these other guys are younger than me.
How did you get started making polyhedrons?
I was teaching mathematics in our school in Nassau, Bahamas. I was sent down there after my ordination in 1945. Once I was there, I got in touch with Professor Coxeter at the University of Toronto. He had written a book on polyhedrons. He found that there were 75 exact uniform polyhedrons. He sent me the book, and I started making the models. It took me 10 years to produce my own book; 57,000 copies have been sold already over the last 40 years, and they’re still selling. My book is all over the world. In fact, right after it was written in England, the Russians translated it into Russian and Japan published it in Japanese. The little booklet was translated into Spanish. So I became an international figure. Everything about me is on the internet now.
What about these models made from cups, how are they constructed?
I use glue, and these clothespins turned inside out are my clamps. I glue them together one at a time, and they automatically go into a spherical shape, because each cup is what I call, mathematically speaking, a truncated cone. The cone has a circular top, but then all these points would extend to a single point, which becomes the center of the sphere. I collect the cups one at a time; it can take me a month to collect enough for models like these. People use the cups and throw them away, so I said, give me the cups. On some of the models, I can add color. All those little pieces I have to cut and paste together one at a time, and then I vary the colors.
These star-shaped polyhedrons look more complicated than the cups.
Those are called stellations. You start from a core which has all flat planes. The planes start intersecting each other in space, and those intersecting planes create a stellation pattern. On my computer all I have to do is click on the little cell, and it generates the model in 3-D.
What computer program are you using for that?
It’s called Great Stella. I’ve only used the computer for about the last 10 years now. My computer is full of polyhedrons. If I say I want to make an icosa, it shows me how to cut the paper. I can get the drawing as big as I want and print it out, and I get guides for making the models.
Pre-computer, how did you start the process?
I had to use drawings that I made or that other people sent me. For all my books, I did my own drawings. Forty years ago, they didn’t have computers.
How long does it take you to make the models?
Anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days. I work eight hours a day, and sometimes it takes three days to make one.
It’s so great that your books are doing well. It’s like you’re training the next generations to do this.
That’s right. It just keeps going.