VII. Of Angels & Slaves

So, here we are. If you’re still reading these posts (Wow, you’re still reading? Thanks for the interest. xx)…

If you’re still reading, the context of how I got to this point should be pretty clear now. I confess I’m not a very reverent person in the conventional sense. Though it has its uses, overly reverent/emotional approaches in my experience have resulted in an obscuring of simple tasks (as when I first studied chemistry) or would have resulted in a mental breakdown (must I really fall apart again at a funeral? It’s the third one this week…).

My approach to the laws of physics is pretty similar. When you’ve watched the idea of God rise and fall so many times, poking around at people like Newton and Einstein doesn’t seem particularly life-threatening, and I do it often, usually when something does not seem to make intuitive sense, or when I’ve heard one too many “this is so easy even a B.A. could do it” comments (And I have news for you, B.A. haters, I’ve known quite a few art people who could organize their thoughts more practically than some very smart scientists, so there’s no need to be mean).

I’m pretty sure more than one person’s considered me a little crazy this past year, but that’s fine. People can say what they want; I will still go about my business in my purple t-shirt, melding math and art and writing up whatever nonsense will help pull me through the rabbit hole that is engineering. Being an undergrad is annoying at times, but it can also be quite fun. There’s a lot of academic liberty when no one takes you seriously, and lots to wonder about.

And I do try to wonder in the most entertaining way possible. I mean, really, why wouldn’t you? But if you need a better reason than that, the best I can give is the observation from Frederick Douglass, who notes in his memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass that slaves sing when they are most miserable, and well, studying engineering when you haven’t seen an equation for over a decade is not exactly a picnic.


Even applying was a difficult venture. No one could really understand why I didn’t study it in the first place if I had the ability and desire to do it, and the reason was not something easily explained (“Don’t you see? There were skeletons involved…”). I also haven’t changed much in my methods for thinking since those first days of wondering. I still throw everything I know at something I don’t understand, which now includes even more crazy stuff than it did in high school.

But this time I was ready for it. Complaints about the aesthetic qualities of lopsided equations and deep introspection about why things are the way they are is just how I see things. Sometimes I do math like a good student. Sometimes I think an inductor looks like a comb from “The Gift of the Magi” and smile because the unit of induction and the author of the story is a Henry.

(O. Henry wrote the Christmastime short story “The Gift of the Magi.”)


Speaking of Christmas, there’s a story in Luke’s Gospel where an angel named Gabriel visits Mary and announces that she will be the mother of Jesus, to which she agrees. The Latin translation of a similar greeting, “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum,” became part of a famous prayer and hymn.

Stories of Mary often get mixed with romantic love literature, giving us things like Greensleeves at Christmas and also this troubadour-like retelling of the angelic visit by Bernard of Clairvaux, in which he says,

O Lady, give the answer that earth, that heaven itself awaits. The King and Lord of all now yearns for your consenting answer as much as he once desired your beauty.…Look, the desire of the nation stands at the door and knocks….

And one’s approach to math, engineering and the physical sciences is very similar to how one approaches this story, I feel. You can shrug it off as not relevant to life and go about your business doing other things. You can accept it as what you’ve been taught without much thought, or you can get reverently imaginative about it like Bernard. If I personally were to rewrite this scene, Gabriel would come to Mary like David Bisbal singing “Ave Maria.” His song, like my analogies, has nothing to do with the actual subject at hand, but there’s an exuberant, almost rebellious, confidence in the presentation that makes me smile. And that’s how I like my mathematical universe: colorful, confident, not particularly serious but definitely happy to exist.

I must admit, it wasn’t always so cheerful, though. There was a time when numbers were quite grey, a few moments at the beginning when my jump from art into math could have ended badly, and I began to believe all the derisive remarks about B.A’s. Turning it around was frustrating, difficult, and at times, really stressful. In the end, it would take a lot of things to make it right, including practice, discipline, a naked marble man and a cathedral in Chartres.

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