Saturday, November 21, 2020

'We Are All Pythagoreans'

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

 Among the professional groups I deal with on the job, mathematicians are my favorite. I like the company of rigorous thinkers who are also limber-minded; specifically, those whose thinking is more rigorous than mine, a fairly vast population, but who posit hypotheticals without anxiety (think of this quality as the mathematical counterpart to Keats’ “negative capability”).


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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