I have very few regrets in my life, I’m happy to say. Ok, so I didn’t marry Farrah Fawcett Majors as I wanted to when I was a teenage “Charlies Angels” fan, and I wasn’t the first Briton to land on Mars, and we still haven’t detected an alien radio signal, but generally no, no regrets. One of my greatest regrets though is that I am hopeless with numbers, absolutely hopeless. They do nothing for me, nothing at all. I look at an equation and I’m like a dog looking at an opera score. I’m not stupid, don’t get me wrong. I’m not a complete number illiterate. I can hold my own in the modern world with the basic arithmetic needed to go shopping, stuff like that, but anything more advanced? Naaah. I turn away from it. I don’t “do” numbers.
Why? Oh, I don’t know… maybe it’s because I’ve always just naturally been more comfortable with, and using, words… maybe I didn’t work hard enough at mathematics at school (actually, I know I didn’t, but in my defence here my maths teachers were all, without exception, godawful, remote and sterile and boring, antimatter teachers to my witty, inspiring and supportive English teachers)… maybe I’m just One Of Those People who hate numbers. I don’t know. But have always had a huge respect for people who are as comfortable with numbers as I am with words. I envy them too, if I’m honest, because I can’t help thinking, as I watch them stood in front of their scrawl-covered blackboards or hunched over their textbooks, drooling over equations and formulae that might as well be written in alien hieroglyphs to me, that I’m missing out on something.. magical. Just last weekend I was with some of my astronomy friends at an observing weekend and a couple of them started discussing how an equation worked (or something) and they became so animated about it, spoke about it with such joy and passion, that I felt like Tiny Tim staring in through that toy shop window, looking at all the beautiful things he would never have. They were living, at that moment, in a world absolutely alien to me.
I have often wondered how mathematicians can find numbers so beautiful. I just haven’t been able to get my head around it. But when I read “The Mathematics Devotional“, a new book by Clifford A. Pickover, author of the best-selling “The Math Book”, I had my eyes opened. I finally, finally, “got it”.
The book isn’t a reference book, or a text book. It’s not full of those equations and formulae which leave me cowering in terror. Instead it is a collection of quotes from mathematicians across the ages, one for each day of the year, each one illustrated with an eye-catching (if sometimes migraine-inducing) fractal image. The cover proclaims it to be “Celebrating the wisdom and beauty of mathematics” and I have to agree. Reading the quotes in the book really does show you how mathematics CAN be beautiful and exciting, and shows that the men and women who devote their lives to the study of mathematics are every bit as passionate and emotional and, yes, as poetic as those who stare at the sky drinking in the light from distant galaxies and star clusters, as these quotes taken from the book show…
“Perhaps an angel of the Lord surveyed an endless sea of chaos, then troubled it gently with his finger. In this tiny and temporary swirl of equations, our cosmos took shape.”
— Martin Gardner, “Order and Surprise,” 1950
“Fractal geometry will make you see everything differently. There is a danger in reading further. You risk the loss of your childhood vision of clouds, forests, flowers, galaxies, leaves, feathers, rocks, mountains, torrents of water, carpet, bricks, and much else besides. Never again will your interpretation of these things be quite the same.”
–Michael F Barnsley, “Fractals Everywhere,” 2000
And that’s it, you see? The truth of the matter is mathematicians see things differently. Not only that, but they see things – perhaps a whole level of Nature – that we can’t. Watching them work, listening to them talk, I envy mathematicians, because something tells me, has always told me, that they see a whole universe I don’t, and never will. And I know that no matter how hard I push on the particular wardrobe door they go through, I will open it and emerge into their Narnia myself. And yes, that makes me sad.
Not too sad though. I’m happy being a writer and an astronomer. I have done, and seen things they never will. I have stood laughing, turning around and around, laughing like a child, beneath a sky painted scarlet, crimson and ruby by the curtains, streamers and beams of an auroral storm so bright it cast shadows; I have sat in the centre of an ancient stone circle and watched a comet rise, tail first, behind snow-dusted mountains; I have stared up and seen fireballs falling from the heavens like shells in an artillery bombardment, flaring and flashing as they fell; I’ve taught probably tens of thousands of children about astronomy and space, opening their eyes to the wonders and the beauty of the universe, hopefully igniting sparks of inspiration and excitement in them that will stay with them forever, and maybe even lead to them becoming scientists themselves, making discoveries themselves; I’ve had my heart melt like chocolate as I knelt beside my telescope as a young girl, balancing on her tiptoes, peered into its eyepiece at a faint comet and turned to me, smiling, and whispered “It looks like a fairy… thank you…”. I go out on a clear night and I can *feel* the glories of the Cosmos. When I look up I look out into an ocean of suns, great beacons of light. I can lift my hand to the sky and almost feel it tingling as the light and heat of galaxies billions of light years away brushes my skin, and more. I bet mathematicians haven’t done half of those things, and many of them would probably find them as uninspiring and unmoving as I find their sorcerous spells of calculus and probability.
But then I read a quote like this in the book…
“What if I told you that you don’t have to sail across an ocean or fly into space to discover the wonders of the world? They are right here, intertwined with our present reality. In a sense, within us. Mathematics directs the flow of the universe, lurks beyond its shapes and curves, holds the reins of everything from tiny atoms to the biggest stars.”
— Edward Frenkel, “Love and Math,” 2013
…and I realise that they have a beauty all of their own to drown in. I was wrong about them. They’re not all androids, or Sheldons. They’re people, real people, just like us. And there’s as much poetry in their souls as there is in the souls of stargazers. And that’s quite a revelation for someone like me who was turned off by numbers at an early age.
Wonderful book, I love it to bits. And it has given me a new and real appreciation for mathematics – something none of my Pink Floyd maths teachers ever managed to do.
“THE MATHEMATICS DEVOTIONAL”
Clifford A Pickover
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