Anthropology Objects & Behaviours
Mathematics is closer to grammar than to science; hence, rather like grammar, it deals with feelings
Mathematics can seduce
For a long time, I thought that mathematics was a matter of additions and subtractions. That’s what everybody thinks. In fact, humankind’s great creations and great literature are never just metaphors: maths is indeed a matter of additions and subtractions. And it is also a matter of lines, circles and polygons. Elements, however, that exist only in the tomes Euclid wrote a few centuries before Christ. In point of fact, all the things Euclid talked about, do not exist. Perfect circles do not exist, parallel lines do not exist, and points that have no part do not exist (“that which has no part” is how he defined a point in his Elements). So, for instance, we wouldn’t even be allowed to say “we have a point here”. Besides being infused with additions and subtractions, maths is also a language and, as such — as Benoiît Mandelbrot pointed out — it can be used as a means of seduction. My understanding of the nature of mathematics, however, changed when I realised that it is closer to grammar than it is to science and that therefore, just like grammar, it deals with feelings. The two human feelings and dispositions mathematics is closest to are love and failure. In maths, as it is in life, we all happen to fall in love and we all happen to fail. For over a thousand years, for instance, the equation x2 + 1 = 0 had no solution. A squared number could not be negative; that was unthinkable, therefore impossible. The equation was false. However, since complex numbers have been grasped and formulated, the solution we give the equation now is +/– i, where i is the imaginary unit (as Descartes defined it). So did we all get it wrong for thousands of years? Were we all learning and teaching lies? No. In real numbers — the only numbers we have known for over a thousand years — that equation has no solution. The equation between a squared number and a negative number is false. For it to become real, we must change dominion of function, we must grasp, formulate, and shift to complex numbers. One day you might meet a person and say “I love you”, and one morning you might wake up by that same person’s side and realise that you don’t love them any more. Are we all lying? Do we learn and teach lies? No. What changes are the conditions, the dominion of function, and that “I love you” becomes no longer true. Human love, human feelings, are like mathematical truths: all absolute and all transient. And the same can be said for failure. Did all the mathematicians who demonstrated that the equation was false fail? No: they were right, yet they did fail. Mathematics tells us that failure is something no one can escape, but it also tells us that only those who do something can fail, the others don’t even exist. And failure as the ontological proof of one’s existence has always seemed to me something to think about. Chiara Valerio (Scauri, Latina, 1978) has a PhD in mathematics from the Università Federico II in Naples and is editorial director of Italian fiction for the publisher Marsilio. With Einaudi she has published Almanacco del giorno prima (2014) and Storia umana della matematica (2016).
Above: Alejandro Guijarro, Cambridge III, 2012. C-type print, 101 x 100 cm. Edition of 5. Alejandro Guijarro (1979) is a Spanish artist based in London and Madrid. He graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2010 with an MA in fine art and works primarily in photography