[ToC]

 

NUMEROLOGY

Vyshali Manivannan

3.14159265358979, π to fourteen places, which my father had me memorize, a transcendental number because it is a number that is not an algebraic function. This name, transcendental, isolates it, makes it superior and rare and godly among numbers when it isn't, really; by this definition all kinds of numbers belong. But we say that transcendentals are only π and e.

When I was little I tried to speak in binary, spouted 1s and 0s to bracketed matrices and willed them to answer me, explain how a single symbol could stand for infinite values. My father taught me algebra before I was in sixth grade, we sat at the kitchen table and he worked through the numbers for my benefit, asking questions until Socratic method was a phrase that filled my soul with dread. The numbers spoke to him, he could translate well, but he couldn't teach me the language beyond parroting it, couldn't get me to internalize it the way I do words and narrative.
     Through the window I could see my friends kicking around a soccer ball. I played with boys, then; I was young enough that this was not a problem. The neighbor kid Hsiao would knock sometimes, ask me to come play. His left front tooth had never fallen out and was a miniature version of the right one. He could punt like no one I'd ever seen. I never thought about what it would be like to kiss him.
     You don't think, my father would tell me, Think, think harder, and I'd stare at the numbers until they swam into pictures of things, notches on the sternum of an animal skeleton, cave paintings at Lascaux. Sometimes I would stop thinking, and then my father would leave in exasperation and I would sit at the table, staring hotly out the window with the math book open in front of me, waiting for inspiration to return to my mind.
     Algebra and geometry are, still, languages I can emulate but never truly master.
     Trigonometry made me cry at night when I was a high school freshman, but in my junior year I met calculus and fell in love. The idea of deriving and integrating, words that are rooted in meanings I knew and could intuit in numbers. As words they mean things more like where we come from and how to belong, though in math that isn't really it at all.
     Despite all this, numbers sometimes rise like floaters in my blood, all of them facedown. Sometimes I think I should have gone this route instead, science and math instead of writing, which provides no safe, steady solution, none of the instant gratification of finding the correct answer. Creative gum-chewing, my father might have called it once, he might have been joking, I may have concealed my hurt.

You, darling, have a heart of stone, while I am the eternal faith that numbers make meaning of the world. Like dictators and terrorists and 9/11 conspiracy theorists, I add them up: if 4/13/02 is the day you cradled me after I sliced my wrists, and 4+13+2 is 19, then on 1/4/14, now that I am supposedly sane, supposedly healthy, will we be reunited?
     Will you know that this is a love letter, and will you think it is for you?

We always asked each other, In ten years where will you be? and wished, or I wished, that I would not be emotionally far from you. I knew it wouldn't happen. You are bad with numbers. We met in a college humanities class, after all, and then in beginners' Japanese, you limited to こんにちは, and 恥ずかしい never far from my lips. You asked for distance after I requested validation. I was passive aggressive. I never tried to kiss you. We shared a bed once, and you masturbated while I watched the shadows on the wall and the bed, just barely, rocked.
     That was on 09/20/04, which adds to 33. In three years we will be 33, and 33 is the age of Jesus when he died but also, and this is the important thing, it is the year that Judas hanged himself. It is a religious year, a religious number, one that science and math think little of except as another set of digits. A placeholder. The improbability of 3 and 3 together being something more than 6. The universe must have believed once, before the advent of mathematics, that addition was all numbers were good for, that you could never break into double-digits, or break them into pieces smaller than zero.
     If I hanged myself in 3 years, it would mean nothing.
     Think, my father used to say.
     You would say, Stop seeing patterns that are not there.

So what does it mean that Archimedes proved π through the method of exhaustion, assuming the truth of a claim and searching for its contradiction to find the limits of the answer. His circles are legendary. He must have squatted in the dirt and drawn polygons inside them and out until they came to ninety-six sides and he found their totaled lengths lay between 3.1429 and 3.1408.
     These can't be the circles that killed him.
     He lived in Syracuse, in Greece, in 287 BC, in a time when the Greek number system closed the distance between mathematics and writing, in a place where science and mythology converged. The burning glass he held that set fire to enemy Roman ships. The fabled claw that swung a grappling hook into invading ships and gutted them from above. The business with the crown.

As my father told it, a king had given a goldsmith a lump of flawless gold, so pure it gleamed almost red in any light, and ordered, Use this and make me a crown. The goldsmith returned to the king within days, holding the crown in his hands. The king, grateful, dismissed him but later noticed how this crown gleamed yellow, how the red heart of the pure gold lump seemed lost in its material. This worried him. He called for Archimedes and asked: How can one be certain that this is the gold I gave him, and not something less pure?
     Archimedes did not immediately know. It was raining that day, and he promised the king he would find the solution and walked home, his head bowed under the storm.

Here the story goes that he sat in his bathtub and noticed how the water swelled upwards at his entry, splashing over the edge. He jumped up, heedless of bathwater, of his nudity, and ran through the rainy streets like a mad satyr, shouting, Eureka, I've got it! to the flat-roof houses and people and livestock of Syracuse, unaware of his indecency and too brilliant to consider the shame.
     The answer is everything.

Eureka was a simple matter of putting one and one together. Displacement, he called it; fluid is displaced when an object is submerged in it, and the displacement value differs depending on the density of the object: that is, his whole body spilled more water than his foot alone.
     The king placed the crown in one bowl of water and a lump of pure gold in the other, and found that the displacements weren't the same. The crown after all was a mixture of silver and gold.

Technically most of what is here is invention. For example I am not sure it was raining that day, or what Syracuse houses look like, and it is uncertain whether or not Archimedes remembered to don a robe before streaking the Syracuse streets, running to tell the king his news. People will talk about the physics major who didn't stop working for three days straight, looking to finish a proof; or about research teams who forgot to eat and sleep and frightened people with their appearances when they emerged from the lab looking wild-eyed, and world-dead.

This is not Archimedes' greatest contribution to science, but it is the one we seem to remember most, maybe because in it we find an element of the human.

I remember there was a mathematician who won the Fields Medal, the Nobel Prize of math, for solving an unsolvable problem and writing up his proof. He posted his calculations on the Internet. It took a while for his colleagues to trace it back to him. He was a recluse. He refused the medal because he did not want the money or the prestige. Isn't it enough to have it solved, he said, or anyway that's what I imagine. That he spoke through the door, he wouldn't even crack it open to address them when they came.
     We like to think of scientists as motivated solely by the quest for the solution, when the means of getting there is far more enjoyable.
     These geniuses aren't all 33, and I wonder if as mathematicians they think about that number at all, or if multiples of 11 still shock their eyes.  The possibility of replicating digits in an infinite system of infinite possibility.

I am sure the king punished the goldsmith in some horrific way, but Archimedes has left the story and as readers we aren't supposed to care what happens outside of him, and anyway the goldsmith probably died as do all men who trespass against the king, The End. But I find myself caring, deeply, about the details, wondering if Archimedes knew the punishment his insight had wrought. If he wondered, maybe, if there was some karmic balance between discovery and evil, if each scientific advancement would create its own partner setback.
     We have, after all, linked radioactivity and cancer. Fire and the stake. Contained black holes and strangelets, though they say these can't harm us. The wheel, and all those who have died on it, or under it.
     These are the answers I want when I begin transcribing π.

I read somewhere that Archimedes died on the end of a Roman soldier's sword, bleeding into the dust where he'd been transcribing his thoughts into diagrams, mathematical convention. His last words were Don't disturb my circles, when the soldier's shadow broke his light.
     He never looked up into the face of his death.
     He died squinting at the dust, striving to finish this last proof, unwilling to go without this final piece of knowledge.
     There is a proportion between discovery and death. You and I remain a broken circle and today my father may be dying, stymied for memory at 3.14. I could write words and proofs forever. It won't bring anyone back.

 


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"Numerology" was excised from a work-in-progress titled BLACK TIGER WHITE VAN, a cross-genre memoir about living in the shadow of Sri Lanka's civil conflict. It is a microcosm of the primary threads in the manuscript: coming to terms with sexuality, with a hybrid identity; attempting to reconcile incompatible disciplines and ways of thinking, being, and knowing; relentlessly unearthing patterns, numbers, the eternal return, in an attempt to make sense of war, trauma, and multiple kinds of loss. What is absent is that this fascination with numerology parallels the superstitions of the rebel leader Prabhakaran. That my numbers are an attempt to map the invisible arc of history, rising through the ages. From Hell. Alan Moore. That by sheer chance I wasn't there for the war, I heard everything but survived nothing, and I have never died, and all I have to deny this trauma is mathematical objectivity, while this arc, implacable, continues to rise.