relating mathematics to poetry and music

Day 7 NaWriPoMo daily posts in November.

Normally I know I’m out of my league when mathematics is the featured topic of a lecture, but several weeks ago I had a slight paradigm shift in my idea of math being boring and incomprehensible after I attended a lecture by Westminster College (SLC) math professor Richard Wellman who spoke of how a group of mathematicians whose theoretical models of how things were supposed to work didn’t work out as planned and helped to lead to the current global economic crisis . In his explanation he discussed the mathematical models and what they do and don’t say about the real world. The upshot is that when I left the lecture room, I felt really good that I had actually enjoyed a presentation with mathematics in it. After 60 some years of math phobia, maybe I’d opened a tiny little path in my right-sided brain that would eventually lead to a break through before my assignment on this earth is over.

So I readily accepted when our daughter extended us a special invitation to attend a lecture at this year’s Utah Symposium in Science & Literature at the University. The speaker was Harvard Professor Barry Mazur, who has won numerous awards from peer organizations, and his presentation was on the language of explanation. As I understood it, his lecture would expound on how one’ s choice of medium–poetry, math, or of music–would shape both  imaginations and how they express themselves.

In tying the field of mathematics to language of expression through music and poetry, Dr. Mazur describes number theory as a field which produces (his words) “–without effort–innumerable problems which have a sweet, innocent air about them and tempting flowers; and yet . . . number theory swarms with bugs, waiting to bite the tempted flower lovers who, once bitten, are inspired to excesses of effort!” For math and language lovers, his 2003 book IMAGINING NUMBERS particularly the square root of minus fifteen expands on these thoughts.

I hung on, thinking any minute now my brain is going to be able to make the leap, the connection if you will, and I’ll begin to understand what this apparently brilliant man is saying that everyone else understands. Friends, after a full hour, I hadn’t understood a single thing. I think the audience needed to be a little better at understanding algebraic concepts in order to algebritize the process (to borrow a favorite phrase of his) of writing a poem. What I most enjoyed about the evening turned out to be the reception before which was catered by one of the better middle east restaurants, Mazza, where we sampled a spicy and rich variety of all kinds of vegetarian dishes followed with baklava and date and walnut sweets.

Is it any wonder then that my sleep last night was haunted by disturbing dreams. I’m no dream weaver or interpreter either for that matter but it was easy to see that most of the dreams I remember came from my insecurity about my place in the world. Dreams where I was on a bus in one foreign country after another, always seeking to figure things out, or find someone who could help me understand how to be where I needed to be.

There was one dream, however, that was pleasant in some weird way. I was staying at some sort of country estate and among other guests were Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes and their daughter Suri. I’ve never thought much about Suri except an occasional thought that she’s really beautiful and rich and probably way overindulged. Strange then, that she was an integral part of that dream and when she disappeared I seemed to be the only one on the estate who was worried. Katie was sleeping, and Tom was enjoying being the center of attention and couldn’t be bothered to speak with me and I was trying so hard to tell him Suri could be in danger.

I suppose it could be explained as another layer of insecurity. Or could be it that my dreams tell me this is just another example that I’m at a loss to understand things the way everyone else seems to. On the other hand, it might have been the spicy food.


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4 thoughts on “relating mathematics to poetry and music

  1. I guess I have to go to more lectures I don’t understand in order to have such interesting dreams. Since I have no idea who Katie Holmes is it probably won’t work.

    • Ruthe, it’s just that you don’t see as many movies as I do. Katie is Tom’s young little wife, a really cute little thing that seems to be sacrificing an acting career on her own to be his baby doll and mother of his child. Remember what happened to Nicole Kidman when he divorced her? She turned out to be an amazing actress in her own right–better than he is! Oh sometimes I think I know too much about these things. That’s why there’s little room left for math and philosophy.

  2. Interesting!!!!! I am math-impaired mostly — never could get into it. However, I can still do a quadratic equation (if held at gun point. I tried thinking of matn as just another lanueage to learn which is my forte as I speak 2 languages and read 3 more but it just didn’t connect. I swear there’s a “math gene” that’sissing from my genetic makeup.

    I do wish I’d been at that lecture.

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