Field of Science

On math and magic

I've been on a kick lately of re-reading my old favorite fantasy novels. I started with some of Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, and am now going back through Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy. I haven't touched this books—or anything in the fantasy genre—since my early teens, and its been interesting to see how differently I relate to them now.

...from another former obsession
One moment in particular struck me. In LeGuin's A Wizard of Earthsea, there's a scene in which a young apprentice-mage sneaks a look at his master's dusty old spellbooks and becomes transfixed by the ancient runes inside. I realized that the visceral feeling evoked by this passage (and others like it throughout the fantasy genre) is exactly what I felt as a college freshman exploring the math section of my undergraduate science library. I would spend hours at a time browsing dusty old math books, the more arcane the better, trying to decipher their internal logic. Yes, I wanted to learn new math, but I was also hooked on the feeling of being lost in these mysterious tomes. Like the mage's spellbooks, these math books contained strange symbols describing deep and powerful truths, which could only be understood through long, deep study.

A sample from a recent article of mine. Doesn't math look cool?
Reflecting back on these moments highlights how my relationship to mathematics has changed.  I was initially drawn to math because of its beauty, elegance, mystery, and because it contained a kind of absolute truth.  But after teaching for three years and studying differential geometry for one, I found that abstract beauty and truth were no longer enough to sustain my excitement.  I wanted to discover and describe important patterns in the world, not just relationships between abstract constructs.  Metaphorically speaking, I wanted to work my magic in the world, not just study it for its own sake.  This lead me to study study of complex systems and eventually evolutionary dynamics.  Mathematics has lost none of its beauty or mystery for me, but my focus now is on its connection to the world rather than its absolute, self-contained truths.

This parallels, in some ways, the differences I've noticed in the way I approach these fantasy novels now.  As a hyper-imaginative pre-teen, I wanted to lose myself in these fantasy worlds, to blur the lines in my mind between these worlds and my own.  Re-reading them now, I have no desire to escape into these worlds.  Rather I look for metaphors and themes connecting these worlds to mine. These books (and the genre as a whole) seem obsessed with the idea of power: discovering one's own power, learning about different sources of power, coming to grips with the dangers and limitations of power, avoiding the temptation to use power for evil.  As a researcher, a future professor, and simply an adult actor in this world, I have a certain measure of real-world power now that I lacked as a bookish pre-teen. In these books, I'm finding an opportunity to reflect on how to wield that power, and the responsibility that comes with it.

Perhaps the larger theme is this: I used to think I needed to escape from the world in order to be myself.  Now my goal is to connect to the world, as much as possible, while still being deeply, authentically, myself.


  1. oh my god, I loved the Chronicles of Prydain!

  2. I haven't touched this books—or anything help me with math in the fantasy genre—since my early teens,


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