Monday, November 12, 2007

Numerical nightmares and Newtonian nattering

Could it be that I became a mathematician in order to exorcise personal demons?

At dinner tonight, I was telling Maggie about an unpleasant dream I had last night.

As in many of my similarly unpleasant dreams, I had lost myself in the heart of a giant hotel, one replete with cascading staircases, ornate chandeliers, and atria with glass ceilings towering to dizzying heights. I'd lost myself, I couldn't find the room I was seeking, didn't know if it even existed. Somehow I sensed I was late for something. Hours, days, even weeks late.

"Were you at a conference?" Maggie asked. I suspect so, and I said this.

"It's weird how many 'conference anxiety' dreams I have," I commented.

What could it mean? Is this indicative of some fundamental insecurity in the quality of my research? Or does it belie a more general sense of confusion or befuddlement, some sense of unease at my place in life?

Tonight's conversation reminded me that I'd mentioned a childhood anxiety dream to Quimby's wife over dinner last night. She'd mentioned that she'd had a dream in which she was asked to count out some exceedingly large sum of money, and just as she was finishing, she lost count. When I was a child, I then explained, I had a recurring dream in which I'd been asked to count to astronomically huge figures, and the simple act of counting so high terrified me. "I woke up in a sweat," I swore.

Not falling, for me. No death by drowning, hanging, shooting, or fire. No ordinary nightmare would do.

For me it had to be counting.

The most common theme truly was an astronomical one: I'd be hauled out into the midst of a far-off asteroid belt, where I'd be left, presumably with some sort of life support system, and having found myself a cozy place to sit on one of the larger planetoids, I'd set about counting.

Millions gave way to billions, and billions to trillions and so forward, and before I knew it my dream-me was sitting there, enumerating the asteroids with fictitious numbers I'd invented for the sole purpose of completing my never-ending task.

Jung would have something to say about some sort of Sisyphean archetype.

I would often awake from these dreams too scared to lie back down for another hour. I'd often have to walk it off, pacing the kitchen floor in the sharp blue light of the microwave's LCDed digits.

I don't remember how young I was when I first had these dreams...twelve? Ten? Surely no younger than that.


Maybe Number has always had something to say to me, and I've spent the last few decades learning how to say something back.

Next week I'll be asking my Calc I students to call upon metaphor, synecdoche, all kinds of poetic imagery, to explore their feelings about mathematics. I hope that they'll take care to have fun in writing a poem about math, but I hope also they'll take the exercise seriously enough to discover something truly meaningful about their own feelings towards mathematics.

What does Number say to them? What can they say back?

Meanwhile, I really ought to say something about today's trials.

They were great.

I gotta admit, what they pulled off today was a tough task: the active participants were asked to think on their feet, to come up nearly instantly with viable explanations for actions that happened thousands of miles away hundreds of years before they were born. They had to continually adapt to newly-discovered evidence, they had to keep tabs not only on their own lines of attack but also on their opponents'. They had to shift chimerically from one train of thought to another, without skipping a logical beat. And they had to do it all in front of a couple dozen peers and their instructor.

Both trials saw their fair share of ers and uhs and uncomfortable pauses (as I put it in a congratulatory e-mail I sent to both classes), but given the leviathan load with which they were tasked, a fair amount of hesitant deliberation was understandable.

They did well.

The exchange got downright vitriolic at times. In my second section, especially, the litigants threw themselves into their roles and engaged in vigorous and rigorous debate. Once or twice during that section I was sure it would come to fisticuffs. Throughout the affair, hastily scribbled notes were passed from colleagues to legal teams, and there was ceaseless whispering between the debaters on either side. There were numerous and strenuous objections. I tried to be as fair as possible in allowing both sides some, but not too much, leeway; I hope this is how my actions were perceived. I attempted to quash speculation and focus on fact, but given the fineness of the line between the two, it was a difficult rope to walk.

Beatrice, who along with Farrah had spent a good deal of time during the trial passing notes to Leibniz's legal team, mentioned after class that in hindsight both of them wished they'd proposed to take a more active role than that of Leibniz's colleagues. "We didn't realize until today that we'd've had fun in that role," she said. Cassio, as Leibniz, did an admirable job in defending himself, and he was ably helped by Xavierina, his lead counsel. On the other side, Tallulah was chief counsel for Newton, played, astonishingly enough, by Newton, who was rather reticent and let Tallulah and Ambrose do most of the talking.

I talked with both Tallulah and Cassio a bit after class. Both thoroughly enjoyed the experience. "At first I thought, 'how are we going to stretch this out to fifty minutes?' " said Cassio. "Now I wish we'd had more time." Others agreed. "Why couldn't we continue on Wednesday?" a few folks asked.

So little time, alas!, so little time.

I thank you, one and all, for putting your time and effort into this endeavor, to make it the success that it was today. What will you have to say about the experience in your reflective essays? I can only guess at this time.

No comments: