Thursday, October 20, 2011


If a poem is a function of the way we respond to a given set of phenomena, then mathematics is the precision of the formula for describing the linkages and forces which govern them. Mathematics is a language, whose terms are narrowly defined, and denote very exact factors of something.

Consider, for a moment, the function of the light and the angles which could describe the distortions created by the undulating surface of this image of water. What, exactly, are the dimensions and shapes of the object/or objects being reflected towards the viewer?

The image is only static for a fraction of a second. As the water continues to undulate, there may "never" be--at least in reasonable time--another moment in which this exact template of light is reflected in exactly this pattern, again. But change is another aspect of the problem.

There should be a way of "untangling" the distorted imagery so that we could "construct" a reasonable facsimile, or recognizable version, of the object which exists above the water at the angle of reflection across from our view. I have no idea what such an equation or set of equations might look like. But I believe there must be such an equation, which would express the distortion in such a way that would enable one to trace it back to its source.

Words don't give us that kind of exactitude. When we use ordinary conversational speech, or poetic speech, or the jargon of disciplines, etc., we're using a crude tool to handle a very slippery, or complex object. How difficult would it be to convey the peculiarly beautiful and dazzling quality this color image projects? Part of the pleasure, I'd argue, is our sense of the accuracy with which our eyes perceive the changing patterns of the light. That accuracy is another way of expressing the precision and complexity of the process we can deduce from just this momentary glimpse.

We've all seen water glittering in the sun, and it's a familiar sight. We know that geometry and calculus and trigonometry can offer a language with which to make a mathematical diagram, a recipe for a phenomenon. Is such a formula or equation any more "real" than a poem might be to describe the "feeling" we can have about an experience such as this? Mathematics describes experience, after all, in the same way language does, but with considerably greater finesse.

In religion, words fail us. In art, they do too, though we may sometimes have the feeling that words aspire to, and attain, high levels of formulaic complexity. As humankind progresses in its ascent to higher plateaus of description and empirical confirmation, we may feel that we grow closer to grasping the inherent riddles of matter, time, origin, purpose. But no matter how sophisticated our languages become, they are all still languages, with greater or lesser degrees of power to describe, convey, solve, or evoke.

Language is what we have. There is this image of undulating water, and the light reflected off of tangent objects dancing in our eyes. We, and it, remain locked in a perfect quandary of mediation. Words bridge the gap between what is happening, and how we respond to that.

1 comment:

Chris Mason said...

Richard Feynman has a quote (I can't find it), that anything in the world can be described by a series of differential equations (thus the power of calculus as a language).
Chris Mason