There is a Spirituality to Mathematics That Most People Do Not Understand
I didn’t come up with title of this article. It came from a person who, in his own words, “flunked out of high school math”. Pretty heady words from someone who did poorly in mathematics. In fact, as you would assume, he hated math. How could a person who had such a negative experience with mathematics come to a conclusion which suggests, at the very least, that he was at the precipice of mathematical knowledge. Taking that glimpse and distilling it down to an idea of mathematics that very few have committed to words this century.
Go ahead. Google the title of this article to find the source of this quote. This is what you will get:
That’s it. David Krumholtz, the actor who played Charlie Epps in the wonderful series NUMB3RS, is the author of that quote. He said it in the “Extras” of the Season 1 DVD of the show. With the heaviness of that quote, you would have been right to think it was a seasoned mathematician who uttered these words. No, it was an actor. I can only imagine that the crossing of the chasm from failure and disdain as a teenager, to learning about its beauty, patterns, intricacies, enigmas, and mysteries for a TV show about math, must been life changing.
How else do you reach for profundity that is rooted in the highest elevation of mathematics?
This month will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of one of the most brilliant mathematicians ever. Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Below is an excerpt of an article I found on Quora about him:
While on his deathbed in 1920, Ramanujan wrote a letter to his mentor, English mathematician GH Hardy outlining several new mathematical functions never before heard of. In his own words — “While asleep, I had an unusual experience. There was a red screen formed by flowing blood, as it were. I was observing it. Suddenly a hand began to write on the screen. I became all attention. That hand wrote a number of elliptic integrals. They stuck to my mind. As soon as I woke up, I committed them to writing.” In the last 90 years, nobody understood what his theorem was, but they knew it was something tremendous. Only in 2010 did they find out that this theorem describes various behaviors of black holes. Ninety years ago, no one was talking about black holes, the term did not even exist, but Ramanujan made a mathematical impression for it sitting on his deathbed and he said ‘my Devi’ gave it to me. When Ramanujan says, ‘Devi gave it to me’, for him Devi is the doorway.
Devi is God. Ramanujan firmly believed that he was only communicating the ideas of God. Judging by how far ahead he was in the field of mathematics, especially with his atypical, rural upbringing, the conclusion of him being a conduit to a higher power cannot be ruled out. Both Krumholtz and Ramanujan overcame initial hardships with the environments for mathematics. While nobody would ever accuse an actor with someone like Ramaujan, they both were grasping for a spiritual terminus for mathematics.
The other day, I was doing math with my daughter. She was having fun listing all the primes that she knew up until 233. My daughter is absolutely smitten with them. I have, in the absolute most basic terms, even tried to describe the Riemann Hypothesis to her — that solving it could help with knowing the distribution of prime numbers. That’s all I said!
Unfortunately, Erdos, who also had beliefs of mathematics to a higher power, gave a depressing time line for the unraveling the mystery of primes.
Euler, however, beat him to the punch — and punched harder.
As the world is navigating through a health crisis for the ages, a lot of anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty is plaguing the world. It is ironic, that something which has promoted so much anxiety in schools, has had people articulate a passage to something of deeper connection and meaning.
Mathematical thinking and the curiosity, wellness, and yes, even spirituality that it can inspire is all that we need. Answers may come or might not come. Understanding ideas might be achieved or may be left in a state of suspension. So much focus has been loaded on the back end of having answers — quickly. More time is needed to just muse, ponder, and mull over math ideas.
For who knows, maybe more of our students will begin to elevate the beauty of mathematics to an unknown power or energy.
There is no more higher mountain to climb in math. For everyone.