Jebdu: Ethiopians on the Frontier
On Art and Math
By: Selemon Getachew
To be honest, i'm kinda high at the moment. Had to get up early to give a make-up exam to one of my students, and that kinda had put me down... But then i ran over to the nearest Starbucks, a shrine to the local coffee cult for which i evangelize, and the result is what you are witnessing! i can't control my fingers... and my brain cycle is waaaaay out of phase in its own supersonic orbit. But all this euphoria and hyperactivity and deluge of wisdom is merely chemically induced, and so i know in a matter of an hour i'll be down crawling in the sewage… again...
This project that they call 'dissertation', is a blessing wrapped in a pocket of doubt and loneliness, topped with occasional fits of madness. It is a pilgrimage I trudge, in search of a squirt of dopamine. You'd think there's something glamorous or profound about the pursuit... well, yes there is, but it isn't all that grand and selfless at times... Either way, it's been one long 20-some years of schooling, a third of it away from the breezy highlands of a beautiful home... many light tears away... Dissertation is where it all culminates, it gives way to the next chapter of what i do..
What i do, (well, promise not say 'oooh'... or 'ouch!'... or 'geez, how dry'... or not to suck your lips and beat your chest in sympathy— wuy afer sihon minnew, minnew...MATH. That's what i do... Here's where you say, -wuy, ene enna heessab eko wuhanna zeit nen"or, eko Abebe besso belto Challa chube saychebit new heessab yangefegefegn"and then, go ahead and picture my inch-thick glasses, my ruffled unkempt arbegna-size afro, my month's worth of unshaven stubble... my slightly stooping back, my fading t-shirt with rainbow colors forming around the armpits, my skinny and awkwardly clumsy limbs hanging lazily like the leaves on a beqolo gind that's ODed on nitorgen. Picture me... and then lift your fingers to your cheeks and pinch yourself a couple of times for having such a poor, mean, and stereotypical imagination... i look nothing like that... ok, only a bit.
Now, what if i told you it's also Art that i do... or what if i told you that the Math i do is Art...
Then, you will've figured out exactly what i do, and you'd be reeling mental slides of all those fancy, flashy, patterned fractal images you've seen on the Net... Or, you'd be thinking Escher... Escher... Escher with your mind locked in an infinite loop of self-repeating, space-warping, perspective-distorting drawings... either way, YOU ARE WRONG!!!
That is not why the Math that i do is Art. In fact, physically, the relationship between the two extends little beyond the inevitable doodles of a hampered progress. The relationship is in the thought process; it's in the sense of elegance and emphasis on aesthetics. Because, what i do is Pure Mathematics.
I do it right here in a basement office of the Mathematics Department at Brown... a department which, depending on my mood (or blood/caffeine ratio), i call either a maximum security correctional center where they send you to serve time if you glide through college still cocky and belligerent... or a shrine of mathematical worship, where you scribble and mutter prayers to the math gods until you publish a work, cherish a Ph.D., or perish in the face of the giants...
The "pure" in Pure Math encodes art-for-art's-sake. It implies theoretical and non-utilitarian, but it also serves to distinguish it from Applied Mathematics, a whole other department where people solve concrete, physical problems and have their research funded by NASA, the Navy, the Airforce, etc... Pure Math is much less expensive cuz all we really use is paper, pencil, and trash cans. Especially trash cans.
Of course, i dramatize the difference a bit, but, despite the theory/application divide, we rarely have any denominational animosity… even when we blatantly disagree in the culture and manner of worship and the philosophy and principle of the teachings.
Unlike Applied Mathematics, which is driven by utility and physical problems, Pure Math is driven mainly by the pursuit of mathematical truth. Even when the truth sought appears to have no known significance to the known world. It's driven by the pursuit of the structure underlying such truth, and the desire to give a simple, direct, non-redundant justification for it; to explain it as more than just a haphazard freak of nature. Such justification is often hard to come by, but when achieved, it's elegant. And beautiful.
In simplistic terms: at any one time, there's a vast sea of mathematical facts that we haven't yet observed, and it's scattered with islands of established knowledge. Sparsely scattered. A justification of a mathematical truth is a sequence of bridges that connects the new fact to the islands of established knowledge. An "elegant" proof is one that does so via a "direct" path. Therein, in the hierarchy of "elegance", lies the sense of aesthetics.
Ignore for a moment the left/right hemisphere theories of the brain. I can't for the life of me remember the distinction. Then, it isn't just the sense of aesthetics that links Pure Math with Art. It's also the mechanism of the creative process; the churning over in the mind of amorphous concepts and images until they solidify into a sequence of familiar structures... the meticulous plotting of a scheme... the sorting and searching through the mental filing system mixing and matching structures... the obsessive manner with which this is done, and the hand gesturing, the faint muttering, the scratching and doodling that accompanies it... all these stand testimony to the common nature of the creative processes.
God knows how much of this self-declared filsifina you actually buy as you sit there obediently clicking away, haunted still by the demons of a one-time mathematical stunt a few hundred strands of gray hairs ago. In case you remain plagued by recurrent memories of long hours into the night munching on chat and sipping on stale tea while cramming Trig Tables and Differentiation rules, well, you're just suffering a relapse of a past Calculus or Trig trauma... This other math, Pure Math, is in fact, about minimizing the amount of random info you employ to memory and instead about understanding the underlying structure ... and THAT's part of what makes it Art... and why i dabble in both, even as i grant you the arramba-enna-qobbo difference in the language and medium of Art and Math…
Lest you think i reign alone in this paganism of caffeine worship, Paul Erdos, one of the giants of Pure Mathematics is supposed to have once said: "A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems. Endafih ya'rgew.
Amen and Q.E.D
Disclaimer: These views are mine and do not reflect those of other persons in the arts, in Math, in the government, or in the graveyard. Be sime-ab yiqir yibelen.