Painting - Numbers in a Spiral


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.

Date Made: ca 1965

Painter: Johnson, Crockett

Location: Currently not on view

See more items in: Medicine and Science: Mathematics, Science & Mathematics, Crockett Johnson, Art


Exhibition Location:

Credit Line: Ruth Krauss in memory of Crockett Johnson

Data Source: National Museum of American History

Id Number: 1979.1093.51Catalog Number: 1979.1093.51Accession Number: 1979.1093

Object Name: painting

Physical Description: masonite (substrate material)wood (frame material)Measurements: overall: 82 cm x 85 cm x 1.3 cm; 32 5/16 in x 33 7/16 in x 1/2 in


Record Id: nmah_694675

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.