Sunday, March 28, 2010


Part 2

Bernhard Riemann was a mathematician unparalleled in the field, who kept cryptic notes in the pages of tomes of number theory, teasing future math historians to no end. He suggested he had a secret formula for predicting prime numbers—something mathematicians have been reaming their skulls over for quite some time—but left little evidence for his peers and successors beyond a trail of bread crumbs resonating with the familiar juvenile taunt of nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah. The rest was burned by his housekeeper.

Mathematics peaked for me round about college-level algebra, starting a steep, steady decline shortly thereafter. It was while taking a course at the community college concerning itself with the business applications of calculus when I determined two things:
  1. math is an incredible study in the hands of other people
  2. I should never, ever own a business.
Amidst the graphs, the Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, and my TI-86, I was well aware that I was on numerical frontiers unimaginable to myself even two years before, coinciding with the increasingly bizarre plot turns on the WB’s Superman saga Smallville—in both cases, I knew my time with the subject was running short.

Ironically, this also happened to be the point I developed a profound respect for the subject of numbers. I was reading a treatise by Oxford mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy on the historical and modern quest to find reason in prime numbering, Music of the Primes. Here was a mathematician who tried hard to make high concept number theory accessible to the lay public. In 2006, du Sautoy published an article in Seed, a New York science periodical, describing the relationship between Douglas Adams’s meaning of life, 42, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the prime number holy grail known as the Riemann zeta function. However, halfway through Music of the Primes, du Sautoy enters—by way of German prime number pioneer, Bernhard Riemann—the fourth dimension, in order to better explain the seemingly random distribution of prime numbers, a series of numbers only divisible by one and the number itself. Three dimensions might be the only reason anyone enjoyed the film Avatar, but graphing in four asks too much.

I picture mathematics as a revolving globe, with my head at its center. Calculus resides on the farthest exterior surface of my skull, just barely making contact with the scalp. The Riemann zeta function exists much further out into the middle space; but, it fascinates me. I am enchanted to think that there might be reason to the seemingly random, and to see it is a matter or shifted perspective, experience, and dimension. My (limited) understanding is that I—as all human beings, animals, and other life teeming on this earth—exist in four dimensions, that of height, width, depth, and duration, but I am certain my mind only fathoms three—the three I can adequately graph, on paper, in two dimensions. Here we have Bernhard Riemann who, of his own accord, managed to tear himself away from traditional boundaries to explore number theory in four whole dimensions, to attempt to map the true extent of human experience, in order to solve one of the greatest mysteries in mathematics.

Riemann died before proving any of his theories. You might say that he is a martyr, a pioneer who refused to return before he explored everything he had set out to.

Somewhat less high-concept was the premiere of the CBS crime drama, Numb3rs, which I watched with fervor for the entirety of its first season. This program had its lead characters—brothers, one of whom was an FBI agent, the other a mathematics professor at a fictional science institute in California—together managing to solve murders through probability and other applied mathematics. This was probably where I first heard the name Bernhard Riemann, and also probably when I decided that being a university professor might be fun. Incidentally, the younger, mentally tortured, mathematics professor brother vaguely resembled my own calculus instructor, so the already blurry line between TV and reality, for me, grew dimmer, and I carried on through the rest of the calculus course actually believing I might go further in math studies. The spell was broken later that spring, after graduating high school and realizing my general mathematics requirements for college would be waived.

I never looked back. Consequently, I now have my mother balancing my checkbook against my monthly bank statements. This might seem a juvenile request for someone in his twenties, but, my mother being an accountant, I think it as reasonable as a dentist’s son asking to have his teeth cleaned. That, and my check register rages like the sea. Asking my mother to plumb its depths is more akin to asking a veteran mariner to sail the waters of the Bermuda Triangle. In this triangle, figures change at their own whims and receipts come and go as they please. Anyone daring to navigate her way through it would seem morbid, but, for better or worse, my mother is about as seasoned as they come.

1 comment:

Fred Sprinkle said...

Dave...this is so nutritious, or satisfying or something. I have similar respect (and thankfulness that I don't have to use it too much) for math. Love the discourse about your mother.