When going to school at Berkeley, I met a lot of people that had some serious love for math. Like, tattoo of π on the butt kind of love for math. It’s deceptive, though, because getting a tattoo of your favorite number or equation is a message that’s only skin deep. Are you truly nerd-core, or are you just a fan-girl, π tattoo girl?
The best way is to look at your iPod, and see if your music is seriously math core, or only has a passing fancy for math. Is your version of a song about math “One is the loneliest number”, or is it Schoenberg or the Mathporn soundtrack? I could try and be all baller squared, and tell you that all I listen to is this music that is fractal in the Fourier domain, but, you can’t hum along, so fuck that. Instead, I’ve got two songs that put the relation back in relationship, in two very different ways.
The first is Long Division by The Aislers Set, who take the “math is stylish” concept to the next level. They’ve obviously got more than a passing fancy (they’re a freakin’ set), and that’s clear in “Long Division”, where Amy Linton mumbles about seeing algebra in your eyes, geometry between the lies, and her relationship fading in exponential waves of gray before it becomes a long division. Now the Aislers certainly aren’t the first band to use the long division metaphor, but they were one of John Peel’s favorite bands, and that shit’s catchy as hell, so love it.
The next turns everything on its head, postulating that the only reason to have a relationship in the first place is for the joy of doing math. Leave it to Sesame Street to take a played out cliche like “you can always count on me” to mean, literally, you can count on me. “Your nose is one, your eyes are two,” the Count croons to Loretta Lynn in that surreal and hilarious way that only Sesame Street seems to pull off. “You’re a counting wonderland”?! Sometimes it takes a good dose of children’s programming to show us what we’ve been missing in our relationships. That is, math (ah, ah, ah).
Aw, math, you have to know the only thing I ever wanted you for were your Dewey Decimals. Mathlete competition? No, thanks. Community theater production of “Guys & Dolls”? Prepare to be rocked by my role as Bystander #2.
But if x = math and y = the arts, square those, divide by awesome, and you get the side that binds them together: fractals. Fractals are equations on spring break, they’re calculations at Burning Man, they’re recursive definitions opening for The Grateful Dead. But who’s responsible for defining that old patten on your Trapper Keeper? Benoît Mandelbrot.
Yale’s esteemed mathematician is the father of the Mandelbrot Set, a set of c-values wherein iterations of complex quadratic polynomials remain bounded around the orbit of zero. And when these polynomials do not escape into infinity, well, what you get that pixelated screensaver you and your buddies stared at when you got high in college and discussed how fantastic it would be to all get a place together.
Jonathan Coulton’s about to drop some knowledge on you with “Mandelbrot Set,” his tribute to the man behind the blacklighted posters at the mall. I think you’ll dig it, but of course it’s only a theorem.
I’m a fairly smart guy but I’m not a natural at math. My peak mathematical experience was grasping the quadratic equation. I remember the beautiful sense of balance I felt when I saw how it all fit together. I was pleased to look at it from each angle; it was like watching a crystal rotate on a string and refract sunlight. I tried not to indulge in feeling smart about being able to observe it.
But like Charly, two thirds of the way through Flowers for Algernon, I knew that I should enjoy it, because it would not last – I do not have the capacity to hold onto complex concepts for any length of time unless I remain engaged with them.
As a philosophical dilettante, I’m inclined to meditate on the fundamental aspects of the many fields I graze. The mathematical concept of negativity, a posited absence, is easy enough for me to grasp but mysterious enough to churn endlessly in my subconscious. On the one hand, without negative numbers, mathematics can’t describe our world for shit. On the other hand, they’re absurd. You cannot have negative three dogs. You can have one dog or more and that’s that.
And yet, and yet… When we move away from counting physical objects to look at the forces that make the world squirm and heave, earn and spend, we find vacuums everywhere. Whirlpools of lack draw the tangible, countable beings into action. Without these black holes to rouse desire, there could be no advertising industry. Life as we know it would surely stop.
Moving from the abstract to the personal, negativity, like everything else, becomes vastly more powerful. And what is more personal than love?
“Do you think she’s… good for you?” This is a question many trusted friends have asked me, gingerly and with concern, Lo, these many years. And the answer is, of course, “No, but…”
It’s her dark hair. It’s her hopelessness. It’s the eyes staring out at you from so far away, with the hope that you can grasp her hand before she is swept away by the whipping winds. The vampire is at your window, silently staring in. Hunger is beautiful. Should we not honor longing, even if it is treacherous and indiscriminate and may turn on us?
And anyway, I can’t help it.