Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Of Numbers and Nicfits

So I'm abstaining from cigarettes again; so far, successfully. This has been day five.

Problem: over the last few years my smoking habit has so thoroughly integrated itself with my writing habit that when I stop smoking, I stop writing. I can usually pull myself back together after a week or two, but for the time being sitting down to write just makes me think of cigarettes (AND HOW MUCH I WANT THEM), and so I'm too preoccupied to string cogent thoughts together.

In the interim I'm keeping the muscles in my brain active with math. Between my torrid love/hate relationship with calculus, some of the stuff I've been reading lately, and my ongoing casual fling with astronomy (though our trysts have lately been much less frequent than I'd like), I've got numbers on my nicotine-starved brain.

How the hell did this happen?

A couple of years ago I began playing with math again during my initial foray into astronomy following the my arrival at an existential crossroads via Final Fantasy XIII. The Astronomy Today textbook gave me problems to solve; I had to remember how to do algebra and geometry again in order to get the correct answers.

Eventually I hit a point where I realized I'd have to at least acquaint myself with more advanced mathematics if I intended to get any sort of grasp on the physics upon which astronomy is founded; so then I began screwing around with a calculus textbook I inherited. The book is still open and I'm still slogging through the massive chapter on derivatives.

It's hard as hell. I was never much good at math, and it's taken me months to cover what probably would have occupied only a few weeks in a university-level course. But I keep coming back to it. And what's scary is that I think I'm learning to love math for its own sake.

I don't know why. That's the funny thing. There's something about it -- about pure mathematics, the Queen of the Sciences (as Gauss called it) -- that's so elegant and perfect, but I can't pin it down without resorting to the same old platitudes. For instance: as a writer, whose art deals with the subjective, ambiguous, and imperfect, it's an alluringly exotic and satisfying thing to handle material for which is a clear solution, only one correct way. But that's a cliché. And however true it might be, it fails to penetrate the surface of the matter.

There's that notion that mathematics are a kind of cipher for the inarticulate "language" of existence. But here we have another cliché, and one that's too opaque. It could certainly be reduced to more fundamental terms, but I'll be damned if I know how that's done.

It is both frustrating and exquisitely fitting that my efforts to collocate my admiration and astonishment at mathematics' precision are so effectively stymied by the imprecision of my intellectual vocabulary.

When I was a senior in high school, a year or two after deciding that writing was something I wanted to pursue come famine or flood, I was driving down route 24 one afternoon. The person driving the car in front of me stuck his arm out the window and dropped a styrofoam Dunkin' Donuts cup. For about half a second the object seemed to move in slow motion, as through across the pages of a flip book. I decided then that the day I could appropriately call myself a writer would be when I was proficient to describe precisely how that cup bounced, spun, teetered, and rolled on the asphalt in such a way that a reader would know exactly and unambiguously what I saw.

Today I believe that this is impossible to do in any language other than mathematics -- not that I would know how, mind you. And even if I were capable of expressing the cup's motion as a series of functions (would functions even apply??), I imagine it would be far too difficult a read for most audiences. (Of course, this holds true for a lot of excellent writing.)

I feel I need to learn much, much more about mathematics. But as I type this I'm looking at the telescope in the corner and figuring that the astronomy textbook I've been using (and neglecting) is on track to becoming obsolete. And I'm thinking again about why I'm so floored by mathematics and wondering what is mathematics, what precisely is it, and accepting that it's not something I'll be able to answer without poring for months over philosophy texts. GOD DAMN IT THERE'S JUST TOO MUCH I DON'T KNOW.

It's a demoniac fact of human existence that ignorance, ultimately, is as settled a matter and inescapable as death.

Guess you can either learn to accept it or take up smoking.

(Yes, it's a binary choice.)


  1. I know that feeling about mathematics. Now, I'm kind of in a different boat from you since mathematics was one of the first aptitudes I showed as a child, but I didn't really end up developing it beyond high school outside the formal logic end, due to my computer science studies. Now, my actual major is history, but even there I get some exposure to mathematics for various reasons.

    Specifically, in one of my classes, we've been studying the European 'Scientific Revolution', which entails a lot of study of practical objects like measuring tools; for the past few weeks, we've been using astrolabe construction as a way to get into these issues. Most of the work in creating one boils down to having a strong understanding of geometry, and there's something about constructing angles and arcs of circles that's just like crack to the brain.

    You might as well keep doing mathematics; nothing wrong with working through it in your brain, especially if it takes the edge off nicotine withdrawal.

    1. I know exactly what you mean. I was dreadful at algebra in high school, but I was rather fond of geometry and performed marginally better where angles and arcs were concerned.

      Some people stop smoking by taking up jogging. I'm apparently trying to do it with differential calculus. So far, so good. Sorta. (Okay, so I cracked yesterday. But it was less fun than I remembered and I discarded the rest of the pack.)

  2. Coming at this from computer science (a heretical sect of mathematics, by some accounts): When you have produced a complete description of the motion of the cup as a computer program, what you have done is produced a simulation. Even if it would take another programmer to read the code and see what you did there, a few lines of graphics and you'd have a simple animation of the motion, recreated from your memory via the one-off physics sim you've constructed.

    In most cases you can substitute "equation" for "program" in the above, at least using numerical solutions where necessary (as in the three-body problem, which I'm sure you've come across). Still, it's delightful to construct a text that accomplishes something merely by precisely specifying an algorithm.

    1. Oooh. This actually reminds me of *another* response I got from a well-wisher on another social media platform. HE WROTE:

      I have similar thoughts on the difference between computer science and the arts. I think the reason i got into CS was for that level of control and description of the (or a) world. I always loved the concept of being able to create a model of a universe so detailed, you could create an identiccal model INSIDE the first model. If I had a large enough hard drive, maybe I could do that.

      And yeah -- can't deny that it's probably more efficient to *duplicate* the visual sequence of a cup bouncing on the highway than to describe it. Well -- maybe. How long would it take to write a simulation like that?

  3. Interesting... When I first found out about you (through your Final Fantasy articles) I figured you were a big mathematics guy. The way you write just makes me feel like you've studied math your entire life. I was extremely surprised when I found out you were terrible at it.

    1. Hah! Thanks for saying so.

      Hmm. But I have tried taking a more methodical approach to my writing over the last few years, and I very probably modeled my style on the work of people who ARE good at math.