Culture vulture

Illustration By C. Owsley Rain

Spring into paradox
Culture Vulture has of late been immersed in the world of complex mathematics, a strange state of affairs for one who wouldn’t recognize a quadratic equation if it came up and bit him on the ass and indeed has trouble with the simple arithmetic necessary to calculate a proper restaurant tip.

It all started with a trip to the Bay Area a couple of months ago. Sitting and discussing life with my brother-in-law and his charming girlfriend, eyes roaming as only a compulsive reader’s eyes roam, my gaze settled on a trade paperback with the intriguing title, The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, the Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity, by Amir D. Aczel. I was especially impressed with the proper use of the serial comma in the subtitle.

The current trend in editorial picayunishness is to delete the last comma in a series containing more than two citations. The havoc that can be wrought on the intended meaning of the serial phrase by the deletion of that crucial comma can be illustrated thus: “This column is dedicated to my parents, Franz Kafka, and God.” According to the current officially sanctioned usage that phrase would be correctly punctuated as: “This column is dedicated to my parents, Franz Kafka and God.” The difference between grateful acknowledgment and a claim of divine literary lineage is only a comma away.

Be that as it may, the end of the evening found me ensconced on my hotel bed with this marvel of mathematical history and biography, which tells the convoluted tale of one Georg Cantor, a 19th-century mathematician who literally drove himself mad trying to construct an equation that would define and reveal infinity, among other things. A daunting proposition, to say the least, and one whose exciting conclusion we haven’t yet reached, but it has given us pause to reflect on how the world we live in is constructed of endless mathematical relationships, topographical equations that unfold in seemingly infinite complexity.

There is, for instance, an equation that would define the spatial relationship of my nose and any given mote of pollen from any given weed, flower, or tree in the city of Chico or, for that matter, the entire face of the Earth. And there is another equation that would calculate the probability of that mote striking a nerve receptor inside my nose that would trigger a histaminic reaction causing me to feel a horrible itchiness in my sinuses and trigger certain internal organs to produce a calculable amount of mucus that would then be expelled at a mathematically definable rate, dispersing simultaneously a cloud of nearly microscopic droplets in the form of a sneeze-propelled cloud, each droplet of which has a mathematically defined volume, trajectory, and duration.

It’s enough to drive anybody crazy. But, given the human capacity to absorb or ignore paradoxes, we will continue to love spring and its attendant beauty despite the inevitable equation: Spring = beauty = regeneration = pollen = snot + misery.

To love does not equal to understand, thank goodness.