“Remember, that you can not trifle with mathematics. The old proverb was, ‘In mathematics as in war, leave nothing unconquered behind.’”

I was speaking the other
day with a mathematician about imaginary numbers. “Imaginary” in this context
does not exactly mean fictional, like Hamlet or Lear. Rather, it indicates a complex
number we can write as a real number multiplied by the imaginary *i*. It
takes the form of *a* + *bi*, in which *a* and *b* are real
numbers and *i* = √(−1). All of which reminded me of a poem by the late Tom
Disch, “The Dot on the i,” in his final collection, *About the Size of It*
(Anvil, 2007). Few poets have been as comfortable with mathematical concepts as
Disch. J.V. Cunningham, who taught math to pilots during World War II, is
another.

“When it comes to the sense

Of beauty, we are all
Pythagoreans,

Transfixed upon the
ineffable and inexplicable

Significance of a number;
for instance

(Or especially?), *i*,
the square root of minus-one.”

Disch has a deft touch
with math. He makes it understandable, amusing and deeply human:

“[I]t is this

Limitlessness of all that
is little that allows

A theoretic possibility of
a plenum

Coextensive with the mind
and reach of each

Man and woman alive, and
unalive, of absolutely

Everyone, in a democracy
of dust where even the largest

Integer is a function of
the number one,

And may be laid low by *i*.
Incredible, isn’t it?”

The sentences quoted at
the top are from a letter Willa Cather wrote to her nephew, Charles Edwin
Cather, on this date, November 21, in 1945. She continues:

“Mathematics are serious
business with you now, Charles. When you do not understand a point perfectly,
you must find a good coach who will pound it into you. If you slide over a
single point, it will trip you up in the end. God won't be good to you and give
you a moment of inspiration, but a faithful coach can make it clear to you if
you give him enough time and money, and you must not be stingy of either.”

Charles Cather (1923-2011),
who grew up to be an attorney, was not stingy. He left $5.8 million to support Cather
initiatives at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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