Mathematics as Escape

Quotes from Edward Dolnick, The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, Chapter Twenty-One “Shuddering Before the Beautiful”

For the mathematically minded, the notion of glimpsing God’s plan has always exerted a hypnotic pull. The seduction is twofold. On the one hand, delving into the world’s mathematical secrets gives a feeling of having one’s hands on nature’s beating heart; on the other, in a world of chaos and disaster, mathematics provides a refuge of eternal, unchallengeable truths and perfect order.

When he was a melancholy sixteenyear- old, the modern-day philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell recalled many years later, he used to go for solitary walks “to watch the sunset and contemplate suicide. I did not, however, commit suicide, because I wished to know more of mathematics.”

“Of all escapes from reality,” the mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota observed, “mathematics is the most successful ever. . . . All other escapes—sex, drugs, hobbies, whatever—are ephemeral by comparison.”

Perhaps this accounts for the eagerness of so many seventeenth-century intellectuals to look past the wars and epidemics all around them and instead to focus on the quest for perfect, abstract order. Johannes Kepler, the great astronomer, barely escaped the religious battles later dubbed the Thirty Years’ War. One close colleague was drawn and quartered and then had his tongue cut out.’

Kepler spent six years defending her [her mother charged with witchcraft] while finishing work on a book called The Harmony of the World. “When the storm rages and the shipwreck of the state threatens,” he wrote, “we can do nothing more worthy than to sink the anchor of our peaceful studies into the ground of eternity.”


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