Saturday, January 13, 2007

Mathematics

Chatted with another piano student before lessons yesterday and learned he had been a math major, which is how I started out. We talked about the special attraction of mathematics, such as knowing when you are right and when you are wrong. Either you solve an equation or you don't. Interpretation, the foundation of the humanities, is replaced by clarity and correctness. It's like playing written music for the piano, you do it or you don't do it. There's something nice about this kind of clarity.

Math was a primary interest until I entered the Army after two years of college. When I came out of the service and later returned to college, math was never my major again.

But I was very focused as a student and young mathematician, and the first publication in my life was a number theory article in a math journal. I even kept a "math journal". I published excerpts in my memoir, Dress Rehearsals. Journal entries trace my shift from math toward the humanities and literature:

3/ The Journals

I kept the records of my variable star observations in an accounting ledger book. I no longer have it. However, my senior year of high school I began a journal (also in a ledger book) of different content, in which I posed, reflected on, and tried to solve various mathematical problems and puzzles, many of them in the mathematical area called “number theory.” Number theory studies the properties of numbers, and I became fascinated with the subject after reading a book, the title of which I still recall: Number, the Language of Science by Tobias Dantzig. For Christmas around this time, I received a thick four-volume set of books called The World of Mathematics. If astronomy was my first intellectual obsession, numbers became my second. The amateur astronomer was becoming an amateur mathematician.

I went through five accounting ledgers before I abandoned making entries into them. I still have all of them. Today they look like notes by someone else, a person I can’t remember being, and my math. is so rusty I often can’t understand what I am doing in row after row of mathematical equations. The journal entries are most interesting in their prose, which in the early volumes occurs much less often than the pages of equations, but eventually the journals stop being mathematical and become the journals of, first, someone struggling to find his way and, later, of a struggling writer. Taken together, the five volumes of journals present documentation of a major change in the direction of my life.

The first journal entry is made on February 2, 1957, and the first line reads, “21 Card Trick: Proof.” Following is a mathematical proof of why the 21-card truck works the way it does. And so it goes, a budding mathematician in Socratic dialogue with himself, with snippets of prose stuck between pages of mathematical equations:

Feb. 4, 1957 … An interesting discussion is given on page 1134 of Newman’s World of Mathematics. I note here the main part.

Feb. 24, 1957 … I have been trying to determine if a parabola is asymptotic.

Feb. 26, 1957 … My proof is wrong. A Cal. Tech. student got hold of it and left me the following note … I can sleep again.

March 23, 1957 … A real stinker than I’ve yet to solve.

March 25, 1957 … At last, I’ve found a worthwhile solid geometry problem (had it on homework tonight).

April 2, 1957 … A solid geometry problem listed only because of the beauty of its solution.

April 9, 1957 … My own generalization and proof of the “Polygon Puzzle” by Cletus Oakley (Oct. 1956, Jack & Jill).

April 12, 1957 … From a recent “chat” with Mr. William H. Glenn, Assistant Coordinator of Mathematics at the Pasadena Board of Education …

May 6, 1957 … I thought of an interesting problem late last night.

June 1, 1957 … Have been concerned with problem of completing the cube. Investigations have led me to [the] work below.

June 16, 1957 … I have generalized an example on pg. 27 of Courant’s Differential and Integral Calculus, Volume I” [note: I had just graduated from high school and already was studying calculus on my own].

The first journal ends on June 26, 1957, 151 pages after the first entry. All entries are made with an ink pen using black India ink. (Presumably I had worked out all these mathematical equations in pencil beforehand!)

On the inside of the cover of volume two of the journals, in capital letters, is written: “DO NOT STEAL! CONTENTS HAVE NO PRACTICAL VALUE!!” I was learning the ways of the artist, the mathematician as artist. Indeed, when I imagine all the solitary time I spent writing in my mathematics journals as a teenager, and compare it to the solitary time I use to write today, I see more in common than different in the two activities. Then I was interested in solving mathematical problems and puzzles in clear, elegant ways. Today I am interested in solving storytelling problems in elegant, dramatic ways.

Volume two continues in the same vein as volume one to June 15, 1958, the end of my freshman year at Cal. Tech. On Dec. 21, 1957, a journal entry notes: “I am taking Freshman Honors Work at Tech. in Number Theory, using LeVeque’s book. I’ll solve the books [ibid.] problems here.”

Everything changes in volume three of the journals. My life changes. At the end of the first term of my sophomore year at Cal. Tech., I leave home and transfer to Berkeley. I’ll have more to say about this later. Here I want to focus on how my journals change.

Through the summer of 1958, there is no hint of the major change to come. On July 24 I am able to write, “So far a lot of beautiful conjecture but not one bit of proof.” In the Sept.-Oct. 1958 issue of Mathematics Magazine, I am published for the first time, taping a reprint into the journal. My article, under the byline Bob Deemer, is entitled “A Recurrence Formula Solution to dy2 + 1 = x2.” But it’s as if publication marks the end of a mathematical career, not the beginning of one.

Suddenly the journals contain more prose and fewer equations. As I enter my second year at Cal. Tech., there are hints of the personal turmoil to come.

Sept. 27, 1958 … As of late I have been in a very depressed state of mind. The result – a poem:

The Dipper swings its counter-clockwise course,
The “Heart of Charles” lingers close beside,
And I look up in saddened, cold remorse,
And seek into the dark of night to hide. …

Oct. 2, 1958 … Is there a God? … I maintain that perhaps it is unimportant – even undesirable – for man to try to answer the question …

Nov. 6, 1958 … I am convinced that the problems of the modern world will not be solved by scientists …

Nov. 15, 1958 … Just read 3 plays by Upton Sinclair in Plays of Protest.

Nov. 29, 1958 … [a poem begins with the line] It’s good to be lonely.

Then, suddenly, all entries stop in November and don’t pick up again until March 31, 1959, a silence of almost four months. “Many months since I’ve written here. I am now at Berkeley – still a math. major. My love for the subject could not let me change into a different major.”

But this attempt at continuity would be short-lived. 1959 would prove to be a year of radical change in my life, of which the end of mathematical entries in my journal was a foreshadowing. Berkeley is such an important transition in my life that it deserves its own section, which will come later, and the next time I quote from my journals – for there are still two more volumes after the third, in which so much changes – the context will be far different from anything we’ve seen.

When I look back at the first twenty years of my life, 1939-1959, I see a solid foundation for the literary life to come, even though there is no hint that I am interested in becoming a writer. I express little interest in literature in the journals. Up to this point, references to books that are not mathematical are to books of social and political criticism. When I write poems, they are the rhymed doggerel of an adolescent. I only have to compare them to poems my brother wrote as a teenager to see how a real poet gets born (Bill published in Poetry magazine as a teenager). The solid foundation I see has to do with solitude and self-reliance. From the time my mother taught me the arithmetic tables in order to keep me busy in a doctor’s office, to an obsession with astronomy that had me out in the back yard with my telescope at three in the morning, alone and deliriously happy, to the private mathematical scribbling in my journal, posing obscure problems to myself to solve – I was learning a life of solitude, reflection, and self-reliance. This is the stuff from which writers are made.


Tonight my piano teacher's jazz trio is playing, and we're going to catch his gig. Looking forward to it.

After class yesterday, he called me aside and asked, "Are you the same Charles Deemer who's the famous author?" I said I wasn't sure how famous I was but, yes, I'm an author. He'd overheard some folks mentioning my name, someone had read something. And then a new student in our class is a woman who writes the business column for the daily paper, and she was a great fan of my play Christmas at the Juniper Tavern. People still bring this 20+ year-old play up, along with the first hyperdrama at the Pittock Mansion, and few local folks who approach me "as a writer" seem to know a damn thing about anything I've written in the last twenty years.

This used to be frustrating but it happens so often it's now amusing. My play Famililly, winner of more awards than any play I've written, still has never been done in Oregon! It's amazing to watch your own career through the local lens. The stuff of comedy.

1 comment:

Nurse Fusion said...

That is such a cool change! Mortality strikes and suddenly an artist is born.