Lost? Good.

Mathematicians deploy a spare language not unlike that used in the best of poetry and painting.

Through it, worlds are created.

Simon McBurney has made a career of taking difficult concepts to the theater stage, and his latest, "The Disappearing Number," is no different, according to a review in the theater section of the New York Times. Beginning with a discussion of the concept of infinity, against which mathematics has made some paradoxical headway, the play doesn't dumb down McBurney's chosen metaphor, but uses it instead to make points about the nature of discovery and human relationships, which, like the most works in progress, require a patient flexibility and suppleness in thought and practice, and can end - or begin again - in complete surprise. 

'People expect the math to be simplified, but I want to surprise them right from the start,' Mr. McBurney said, speaking by telephone from London. 'When the brain gets lost, it doesn’t stop working. It tries to makes sense of things. It begins to speculate and guess, and that’s when things open up. That’s exciting.'

Lately, we don't do "lost" very well. As thinking, feeling organisms, we're far less interested in the world as it is than in a world that makes sense. While being adrift can bring anxiety, it can also be an important mechanism for change and creativity when "speculation and guess" are put to productive use. It's that mathematical quality that appeals to me. With so many people retreating to informational ghettos, differences haven't of late become just the benign order-of-things in a world incomprehensibly vast, but a sign for the faithless something has gone terribly wrong. And so the potential for discovery is willingly put aside. This judiciously worded answer from McBurney about a different way offers a useful contrast.

...when asked how the discussion of infinity at the beginning of the show relates to modern-day relationships, [McBurney] paused before slowly building a formulation.

'Infinity is a way to describe the incomprehensible to the human mind,' he said. 'In a way it notates a mystery. That kind of mystery exists in relationships. A lifetime is not enough to know someone else. It provides a brief glimpse.'

The surprise shouldn't be, then, that talented people, like the brilliant mathematicians in McBurney's work, and like Philippe Petite, Sean Carroll, Jon Landau, Sapphire or Daniel Tammet, who will be at the IdeaFestival in 2010, bring abstraction to life through their science or art or entrepreneurial efforts or experimentation, but, having become lost, that anyone would willingly turn the here and now into a comfortable abstraction and go full stop. Infinity is just the beginning.


Image: Pip Wilson