September’s book club selection was ‘A Beautiful Mind’ by Sylvia Nasar, the biography of John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematical genius. I felt as though school had started and this was required reading, clearly not something I’d ever have chosen myself. I read it, though, and it is wonderfully written, totally absorbing and totally different from the movie. It’s still not clear to me what Diophantine equations or algebraic manifolds are, but the book is written in such a way that while these things are mentioned, there’s no need to know what they are — knowing that they’re really complicated is enough. Nash was well ahead of his time, pulling breakthrough theorems and complex solutions right out of his head and finally, of course, journeying down the road to madness and back.
I set out to find other writings that involved mathematics, focusing on nonfiction, and along the way discovered this limerick:
’Tis a favorite project of mine
A new value of Pi to assign
I would fix it at 3
For it’s simpler, you see
I also found a play, ‘The Adding Machine’ by Elmer Rice, written in 1929. A strange affair: Mr. Zero works in an undefined office writing down small sums (1.29, 3.73, 8.67 and so on), then adding them up. He’s been doing this for 25 years. His wife, Mrs. Zero, is also in the play, as are their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven. Well, Zero’s boss comes to his desk, announces that he has purchased an adding machine, has hired a young girl to operate it, and Mr. Zero is 86’d. Zero kills the boss, etc., etc., but I found the premise chillingly relevant to today, as jobs performed by people inexorably disappear and the men and women of our world are left to find different work. I didn’t have access to the entire play, which was fine with me; it was very depressing.
Numbers run from fascinating to frightening, depending on each person’s ease with them. Nuns and brothers pounded the times tables into my head and those rhythms occasionally pop back up in odd formats and float around like some old song. As in “Eight eights are 64, multiply by seven, when you’re done, carry one, and take away 11,” etc. Pretty spooky.
When David Auburn’s play ‘Proof’ opened on Broadway in 2000, it was highly acclaimed and ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize. Catherine, a brilliant young woman, “speaks” to her dead father, a former college mathematics professor. He had severe mental issues; she wonders if she does. Along the way a notebook containing a new math proof is discovered in a desk drawer. Everyone assumes the father wrote it but Catherine says no, she did, and the play develops around her fragility and the family tensions that result from her claim. A fine play, it was also a successful movie, with Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and Hope Davis.
I close with MIT’s fight song, loudly rendered at sporting events:
Secant, tangent, cosine, sine
3 point 1 4 1 5 9
Achieve, team, achieve!
How cool is that?
Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at [email protected]