March 12, 2010

Not Just By the Numbers

How can you tell an outgoing mathematician from a shy mathematician? The outgoing mathematician stares at your shoes, instead of his own.

I went to a fabulous party at my friend and writer extraordinaire Nina’s last night. I spent part of the evening talking with Greg, a guy in the math department. I asked him about his work and his process, which are fascinating. His area is partial differential equations and applied analysis, including conservation and balance laws. You know, like e=mc2. There’s only so much matter and energy in the world, and it all balances out. As if I know what I’m talking about.

He described his work. He said that a big paper in the mathematics field is proving that there is a solution to a problem. So, you could have a paper that says, no, in fact, there is no solution to this problem. He described his process. He dreads getting started. It’s this huge problem to solve and it feels so big. Then, once he’s into it, it takes over his world. It just flows. If he has to stop to do other things, it’s hard to get started again, but then it will flow again. And it doesn’t feel as if he muscles through and creates something. The solutions feel like found objects, as if they exist independently of the researcher and you just happen upon them. They take on a life of their own.

Sound familiar? This is exactly my writing process. I don’t know why it surprised me to think of math in the same way, but duh! It takes a huge amount of creativity to solve mathematical equations. They’re not just “by the numbers,” so to speak. Things that have been solved are, certainly ~ just like stories are fixed once they’re part of the culture ~ but there is always the leading edge of mathematics that people are figuring out. Math actually needs research. All very naïve on my part.

So once again I’m reminded of our common humanity. The creative process IS the creative process, whether you’re writing a novel, solving a mathematical theorem, or figuring out how to water your plants when you’re away on vacation. Something very comforting in this.

What I’m Reading Today: Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in preparation for working on my novel.

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