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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
"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.