“Geometry is knowledge of the eternally existent.”
Some people are better thinking in symbols rather than words. For French inventor Philipe Starck, that symbol was “∞” for infinity, designed by English mathematician John Wallis in 1655:
For me, it is the most intelligent piece of graphic design in the world. To say something in a complicated way is very easy. But to find a way to say it simply – that takes a lot of work.
The infinity symbol is a paradox: it solidifies a number in absolute terms to illustrate something that never ends. As Starch puts it, infinity “is about the fight we have with ourselves to try to understand more and more.”
Infinity is too impossible to count. The simple representation provides both a temporary relief and impetus for a more in-depth understanding of something that goes beyond comprehension.
People are afraid of big numbers because they have no spatial understanding; the largest numbers are beyond comprehension, as the multitude of chess moves or the unfathomable number of sand grains in the desert. Infinity appears impossible to count!
University of Texas computer science professor Scott Aaronson believes the answer to naming the world’s biggest number lies within the deepest paradigm, some of which is solvable by exponentials, language, and sheer imagination:
“When thinking about 3, 4, or 7, we’re guided by our spatial intuition, honed over millions of years of perceiving 3 gazelles, 4 mates, 7 members of a hostile clan. But when thinking about BB(1000), we have only language, that evolutionary neophyte, to rely upon. The usual neural pathways for representing numbers lead to dead ends. And this, perhaps, is why people are afraid of big numbers.”
It is a canard to think that math can’t fail. All you need to do is look at the way society constructs algorithms – from job and college applications to Facebook feeds to find out that sorting can be wrong and biased.
In the case of the 2016 election, algorithms did more harm than good. Facebook fed the internet silos with fake news. As Cathy O’Neil author of Weapons of Math Destruction puts it in a 99% Invisible podcast: “The internet is a propaganda machine.”
We’ve adopted the factory mindset of mass-sorting, leaving the anxiety of decision-making up to machines. Humans are pieces of data, waiting to be organized by the least valuable candidate or customer.
There are too many of us and not enough time to make individual considerations. But a conversation around algorithmic frailty might do us some good. Making generalizations impedes the magic of discovering an outlier.
In an interview with Time Magazine, Japanese author Naoki Higashida reveals his favorite number. His answer is both complex and beautiful:
I’ve never really thought about my favorite, but if pushed, my answer would be 3. The number 1 is the most important. It feels like proof that something is there. Then again, zero is the most amazing discovery. The concept of nothingness is proof of human civilization. After 1 comes 2 in order of importance. The number 2 lets us divide things and put numbers in order. These three numbers (0, 1 and 2) would have been sufficient. As a number, 3 is enchanting. It was created even though it wasn’t needed. Perhaps it was born out of creativity?
Digits transcend each other. Like words, each one fits into the fabric of a larger numerical system.
The whole is a sum of its parts. What’s your favorite number?
Image via Celeste Ng
Do your math: check out the ‘Coltrane circle.’