• February 12, 2021 |

    n+1 reasons I love you

    a love letter to math

    article by , illustrated by

    Dear Math,

    I think it’s about time I formally introduce myself to you. I’m Ellie, and whether you know it or not, you’ve completely changed the way I look at and understand the world. I often find myself lost in thought, enamored by your ceaseless beauty and your ability to make sense of a reality that’s stricken with the convoluted and chaotic. I may be coming on a bit strong, but I need you to know exactly how great an effect you’ve had on my life, because I love you for it.

    1+1

    Back in the days when counting to 100 was the epitome of genius, I sat in my first grade classroom and saw you written on the whiteboard in your simplest form. You defined many of my earliest discoveries: that my fingers could go “one, two, three, four, five,” to tell you that my age is “this many,” that scoops of ice cream could be numbered to explain why dad’s bowl was always fuller than mine, and that any hour in the morning that could be numbered on one hand was definitely a bad time to disturb my parents. Math, you were here all along, but until then you weren’t more than an idea floating around in my head. You made sense of bags of pennies, attributed values to known truths. While 1+1 was only the beginning, my interest in you already knew no bounds.

    12 x 3

    I was told I should hate you, but practicing my times tables made me feel alive in ways I hadn’t before. I’d been waiting to learn them since about a year prior, when a kid in my class asked the teacher when we’d begin studying multiplication. As much as I wanted to move ahead of the class, soak up any new secrets you felt like sharing with me, I also wanted to bask in the thrill of learning each concept for the first time. I’d sit for hours on end, thinking about how clever it was of you to turn 12 + 12 + 12 into an equation that is triple the value of 12. Your orderliness and many rules were unlike anything I’d ever known. And when I saw that 12 x 3 rectangle, I saw a picture frame containing some fundamental truth—a small fraction of reality that would someday become the key to understanding the unknowable about our existence. The relationship I had with you back then was simple, so the meaning of life and the essence of the universe (or even universes) needed to remain indeterminate for a bit longer. I was excited to take the time to figure you out, and to hopefully figure myself out along the way.

    12.3 ÷ 4

    As I walked into my room—shoes in the middle of the floor, papers everywhere, no open counter space to be seen—I laid down on my carpet and opened my math book. I then went through the steps of long division: writing out the problem, seeing how many times the divisor fit into the first digit of the dividend, subtracting the difference, bringing down the second digit, and so on. This problem-solving process was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever encountered: the numbers, regardless of how arbitrary they were, gave me a sense of order that was integral to unraveling my world of disarray. I found magic and harmony and balance in you, a welcome juxtaposition to my disorderly state. It reminded me of the true goal of math: to reveal the greatest, most universal truths of life through depictions of our worldly experiences.

    Time and time again, I was lectured about how my room wasn’t neat enough, how my sleep schedule wasn’t uniform enough, how my communications over text weren’t reliable enough. Naturally, I felt defeated. Of course I hated these things about myself, too. In fact, I often became so “all over the place” because of my persistent need to make things perfect—the cycle of realizing that nothing will ever be perfect enough, pitying myself for even caring, feeling guilty for losing control and letting my chaos seep into the lives of the people I care about, then vowing to be better. The problem is, I had a hard time maintaining any amount of order that was not an extremum of it. So, old habits would reemerge… until you showed up for me.

    Don’t get me wrong: I still struggled with disarray on a daily basis, and I do even now. But when I sat in the eye of my hurricane of a bedroom, working on math problems, in awe of the thorough and multistep techniques used to get through to you, everything clicked: if your order brings me calm and consistency, then there’s no need to exist in a binary of absolute order and absolute chaos. Instead, I can find (and have found, to some degree, thanks to you) a balance somewhere in between.

    r = 1 – sinθ

    Later, I moved on to algebra and calculus, some of your more advanced topics. It had grown increasingly clear to me that though you bring out the best in me, I wasn’t supposed to love you. You were apparently supposed to make me cry and question the value of the American education system (which, don’t get me wrong, is very messed up. How could they do you so dirty with that anti-individualist Common Core hogwash?) While my classmates groaned, asking our teachers with the utmost sass, “Why would we ever need to know this?”, I sat at my desk, thinking to myself, “Why wouldn’t you want to know this?” 

    Frankly, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that most people see you as a bunch of equations and lines and curves, when I see Malevichian art in you—an image so clear yet so abstract at the same time. To most students, your cardioid curves may seem like a waste of effort and not worth studying, but I see your heart in them. You remind me that everything I encounter—buildings, door knobs, paperclips—can be broken down into little infinities and be plotted, graphed, and analyzed. Despite your objective and quantitative nature, the number of methods I can use to understand you is nearly boundless. When dealing with myself, however, I’m not always as forgiving. I constantly feel the need to narrowly define myself and my purpose in this life. I feel this enormous pressure to choose between you and the humanities, you and literature, you and fuzzier, warmer studies, even though these are hardly opposing forces. I don’t always know my end behavior, what I’m trying to express, or what my function is. In the realm of all things real, there are still times when the answers to your questions are undefined.

    Since my elementary school days of writing works of fiction (when I’d written a superhero version of myself with math whiz superpowers), you’ve always been a constant in my life. It’s true, you’re my art form, my muse, and my best chance at understanding how the world works. I’m so in awe of your beauty, and I hope to keep discovering the multitudes of truths you contain. And while there are problems to which even you don’t have clear solutionsincluding those derived from my personal qualms about my identity—I still try to find some sort of wisdom in your expressions. As such, if I were to make a graph of my life, where x exists on the interval [birth, death], I would find that all x-values on this interval could be divided into infinitely many points that are an infinitely small distance apart from one another. I could then try to guess where my life is heading based on the direction it’s taking at any one moment, although I don’t know much else about the in-betweens of now and the end of my life. It seems like, maybe for once, I should ignore all of the calculating that can be done, and instead focus on the infinitesimally small moment that is right now.

    Thank you for everything, Math; I owe the sum of all that I am to you.

    Love,

    Ellie