Some of Crockett Johnson's paintings reflect relatively recent research. Mathematicians had long been interested in the distribution of prime numbers. At a meeting in the early 1960s, physicist Stanislaw Ulam of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico passed the time by jotting down numbers in grid. One was at the center, the digits from 2 to 9 around it to form a square, the digits from 10 to 25 around this, and the spiral continued outward.
Circling the prime numbers, Ulam was surprised to discover that they tended to lie on lines. He and several colleagues programmed the MANIAC computer to compute and plot a much larger number spiral, and published the result in the American Mathematical Monthly in 1964. News of the event also created sufficient stir for Scientific American to feature their image on its March 1964 cover. Martin Gardner wrote a related column in that issue entitled “The Remarkable Lore of the Prime Numbers.”
The painting is #77 in the series. It is unsigned and undated, and has a wooden frame painted white.
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