Doing math like William Blake

by DRM

William Blake's Newton (1795), colour print with pen & ink and watercolour


Recently, I was talking with a mathematician. He was animated as he talked about the beauty of math, the thrill of taking an axiomatic system and using its principles to build a bridge to a solution for what appears to be a wholly unrelated problem. The excitement in his manner was infectious and deep.

He became grave. The future of mathematics is “soulless,” he said.

That word was rich with implication: of his world view, of the way that math can touch the human heart, of what he searches for in life.

He is an unassuming looking man, much like you would expect a mathematician to be. He is slight, bald, and has thick glasses. He’s prosperous; his expertise in math gave him a successful career in finance. In any moment, though, you have to check whether he is truly present or not.

The language of math, his ability to apply the axioms of his practice to visualize the absolute abstraction of no-space, of the there-that-is-not-there, lets him drift into a state that accommodates few people.  His wife, a tall, energetic blonde, will carry him off at those moments, a fertility goddess carrying off the straw husk of a powerful but dormant totem.

Why “soulless?” I ask.

He talked about the absolute power of computing systems, the ability to process data on a scale and at a rate beyond anything mankind has ever imagined. These powers exist today.

“Every problem is going to be answered,” he said. “Every single one.”

The  solutions will terminate the unanswerable questions, extinguish the imagination, end the search for the solution to the insoluble.

“Won’t there be a renaissance of asking questions?” I offer.

He doesn’t seem sure of that.

I don’t tell him that I write, that the practice of creating has taught me that our greatest  delusion is the conviction that there are answers, that the best stories have an end, that the brightest among us are able to see solutions others can not see.

Beauty is in the understanding that everything can change in any instant, but in each instant that we are present, everything is complete and at rest.

We sat quietly.

He focused on my face.

“The ones who are lucky are the ones who ask their own questions, not the ones who spend time answering other people’s questions,” he said.

“Like William Blake,” I said.

Then we fell silent again.