Wednesday, June 27, 2012
MATHEMATICS = ELEGANCE
Mathematics is an art form.
Intelligent, sweet LL thrust a book into my hands on Christmas morning, assuring me that it was beautiful. I find that The Housekeeper and the Professor is more than beautiful: Yoko Ogawa uses a graceful plot, cultured characterizations, and luxurious language to develop the theme of the splendor of relationships through the elegance of mathematics.
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, our novel begins with the Housekeeper learning that her agency is sending her to care for the Professor, whose short-term memory lasts only 80 minutes because of head injuries suffered in a car accident. The characters have no names. If they did, they Professor would not remember them anyway. He must write notes to himself and pin them all over his suit in order to know who the housekeeper is and sadly, his notes include, My memory lasts only eighty minutes.
The high school dropout housekeeper and the highly educated professor, who can remember mathematics and the glory of numbers, find common ground when the Professor learns that the Housekeeper has a young son. He insists that the child come to his home with the Housekeeper and then nicknames the boy "Root" because the flat top of his head reminds the Professor of a square root symbol. The Professor has not forgotten his love of children, nor his love of baseball -- shared by Root and learned by the Housekeeper. The relationship between the three develops into a fast friendship as the Professor teaches the housekeeper and Root about amicable numbers and elegant equations.
"What kind of mathematics did you study at the university?" I asked. I had little confidence that I would understand his answer; maybe I brought up the subject of numbers as a way of thanking him for coming out with me.
"It's sometimes called the 'Queen of Mathematics,'" he said, after taking a sip of his coffee. "Noble and beautiful, like a queen, but cruel as a demon. In other words, I studied the whole numbers we all know, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 . . . and the relationships between them."
His choice of the word queen surprised me -- as if he were telling a fairy tale. We could hear the sound of a tennis ball bouncing in the distance. The joggers and bikers and mothers pushing strollers glanced at the Professor as they passed but then quickly looked away.
"You look for the relationships between them?"
"Yes, that's right. I uncovered propositions that existed out there long before we were born. It's like copying truths from God's notebook, though we aren't always sure where to find this notebook or when it will open." As he said the words "out there," he gestured toward the distant point at which he stared when he was doing his "thinking."
"For example, when I was studying at Cambridge I worked on Artin's conjecture about cubic forms with whole-number coefficients. I used the 'circle method' and employed algebraic geometry, whole number theory, and the Diophantine equation. I was looking for a cubic form that didn't conform to the Artin conjecture . . . In the end, I found a proof that worked for a certain type of form under a specific set of conditions."
The Professor picked up a branch and began to scratch something in the dirt. There were numbers, and letters, and some mysterious symbols, all arranged in neat lines. I couldn't understand a word he had said, but there seemed to be great clarity in his reasoning, as if he were pushing through to a profound truth. The nervous old man I'd watched at the barbershop had disappeared, and his manner now was dignified. The withered stick gracefully carved the Professor's thoughts into the dry earth, and before long the lacy pattern of the formula was spread out at our feet.
LL, when you gave me this book of beauty to read, did you know you were putting Favorite Young Woman in my hands? F.Y.W. employs algebraic geometry. F.Y.W. of the long, delicate fingers and the healing touch is the elegance of mathematics embodied.
I am so grateful that you brought The Housekeeper and the Professor to my attention. With this novel in my hands, I hold my own daughter.
Infinities of love,