We recognize it in the act of curving toward us, because the curve’s path is under the control of an axiom that brings us and the shape forward to each other by equal measures. But the closer the gracile shape comes to us and the more we recognize, the less equal we will feel to it. The more we come to know it through the complex mathematics of its curves, the less of our own simple selves will we be interested in knowing.
Mist it, therefore, and kill.
Homage to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson.
“Mathematics is a form of poetry which transcends poetry in that it proclaims a truth; a form of reasoning which transcends reasoning in that it wants to bring about the truth it proclaims; a form of action, of ritual behavior, which does not find fulfillment in the act but must proclaim and elaborate a poetic form of truth.”
— Solomon Bochner, The Role of Mathematics in the Rise of Science (Princeton University Press, 1966) 14.
In the freshman composition class the assigned reading was Loren Eiseley’s “How Flowers Changed the World,” and the education was proceeding at a normal pace. Eiseley’s prose is college-level, and the freshmen were on their way to being college-level readers.
But Eiseley’s vocabulary also refers itself to a college-level science. “How Flowers Changed the World” originates in botany — specifically in the botanical idea that flowers are sex organs. The moment we got to Eiseley’s enunciation of the idea, there was a sudden loud noise. It came apropos, for the climax of Eiseley’s essay is another loud noise.
The noise that woke Eiseley in the middle of the night was the snapping report of a seed pod explosively discharging its seeds. For me and my drowsy students the noise was a scream.
It was coming from a girl in the class, and it had words explosively punctuated. The explosion went:
“Flowers are SEX ORGANS?!”
“What did you think they are?” I Socratically replied.
And then the girl said, in the intonation pattern known as uptalk, ” . . . For decoration?”
This conversation took place a very long time ago — in the 1980s, I believe. But it has stayed with me as one of the happiest moments of my life as a teacher. In memory of that memory, then, this.