Friday, March 16, 2018

`Mathematical Formulae on the Wall'

Like me, one of my friends is a devoted reader of Laudator Temporis Acti, where on Thursday Mike Gilleland posted a passage from David Garnett’s introduction to Anna Wickham’s Selected Poems: “[S]he told me that she had taken Hall and Knight’s Algebra with her and had spent her time in the private asylum working out quadratic equations in order to keep her mind from dwelling on her situation and to overcome her rancour.” My friend is book-minded, and one allusion inevitably bleeds into the next. He writes:

“I remembered Johnson’s advice to the clerk who was stealing, of all things, packing thread, a mysterious habit he wanted to break. Johnson advised the poor man to take up algebra. It’s a humorous story, but it’s a valuable one. It’s quite true. Johnson, prone to morbid thoughts, prey to the depredations of depression and despair, had the great intelligence to know how to combat his propensities.”

In Boswell’s account, Johnson’s warehouse clerk seeks the great man’s assistance because he is “oppressed by scruples of conscience.” The man works in a warehouse and is “often tempted to take paper and packthread enough for his own use, and that he had indeed done so often, that he could recollect no time when ever had bought any for himself.” Johnson suggests that the clerk’s boss would probably be “wholly indifferent with regard to such trivial emoluments.” The clerk knows that to be true because he has already told his master about the petty thievery, and the master told him to take as much thread as he wanted. Johnson tells him to “tease me no more about such airy nothings,” then concludes that “the fellow might be mad.” That’s when Johnson gives him pragmatic advice for relieving a guilty conscience:

“I would advise you Sir, to study algebra, if you are not already an adept in it: your head would be less muddy, and you will leave off tormenting your neighbors about paper and packthread, while we all live together in a world that is bursting with sin and sorrow.”

Boswell concludes: “It is perhaps needless to add that this visitor came no more.” Our clerk suffered from over-scrupulosity. Depending on the severity of the case, Johnson’s prescription might have worked. I remembered stories of people in prison distracting themselves with mathematics. Odessa-born Jakow Trachtenberg, while held by the Nazis, devised a streamlined technique for making mental mathematical calculations. Simone Weil’s brother Andrew was the mathematician who, while held in a French prison shortly before the Nazi invasion, devised the Riemann hypothesis. And I remembered Arthur Koestler’s anecdote in Dialogue with Death (1942), his account of being held prisoner by the Spanish Fascists during the Civil War. On the first day, angry, frightened and bored, he turns to math:

“I took a piece of wire out of the bedstead and began to scrawl mathematical formulae on the wall. I worked out the equation of an ellipse; but I couldn’t manage the equation of a hyperbola. The formulae became so long that they reached from the W.C. to the wash-basin.”

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