An­thro­pol­ogy Ob­jects & Be­hav­iours

Math­e­mat­ics is closer to gram­mar than to science; hence, rather like gram­mar, it deals with feel­ings

Domus - - CONTENTS - Text by Chiara Va­le­rio

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

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