Boats against the current

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Describing this video, the World Science Festival says that "Mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and author Simon Singh explain how, once one gets past arithmetic and into the big ideas driving mathematics, it can become a highly creative, artistic, and even emotionally charged endeavor."

I freely admit that when it comes to math I was emotionally charged once, just prior to a high school Algebra II final. The fear of failure - I did - has that effect. But loving and appreciating how the great writers can build worlds made right with words, I was intrigued by Robert Krulwich's too-simple and rather unfair comparison between natural and symbolic language. I was intrigued because I knew what was coming next. Not surprisingly, the mathematicians on stage promptly called him on it - poor guy.

Thinking about the descriptive power of natural language - Melville's white whale - Shakespeare's wavering Hamlet - Dickinson's eremitic prose, it's of course immediately obvious that words are more than just symbols with meaning and a one-to-one relationship to an idea or object. As suggested in the video above, the idea that one might subtract six from three introduced a new thought with lasting implications.

I also thought of this passage from The Great Gatsby:

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes-a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Later in life I've come to have an amateur's appreciation for how mathematicians like du Sautoy must bring a writerly quality to their craft. I wonder what it's like to breathe in topologies that describe the contiguous features of space and time itself, or suggest hidden folds in realities much too small to experience directly. Just like Fitzgerald, mathematicians can also explore infinities and emptiness, and, once mastered, the experience of taking in the complexities commensurate with our capacity to wonder, the experience of making sense of an unfamiliar terrain, of producing an ineluctable result, is a profound and enviable skill that eludes all be a select few. For those few, the exhale must be endlessly satisfying. Oh, so that's it.