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There are two sides to every brain, why not use both?
Two weeks ago, knee-deep in midterms with no end in sight, I was sitting in a Lau cubicle staring at a pile of books and an empty Microsoft Word document. As an English major, I’ve written plenty of literature papers—and I anticipate writing dozens more—but this particular essay was giving me a massive case of writer’s block. Discouraged, I slammed my computer closed and decided to focus on something other than books to clear my head for a little. So I started the other homework I had due the next day: directional derivatives.
If you’ve got a baffled look on your face, I’m used to it. It’s the look most give me when I tell them I’m a double English and Math major. The right-brained bunch thinks my Multivariable Calculus homework looks like extra-terrestrial communications, while science and math nerds grow disconcerted at the mere mention a paper assignment. “Ten pages? … Of words?!”
Neither solving differential equations nor analyzing why the sun made Mersault kill someone in The Stranger has universal appeal. But many friends have told me that the kinds of thought that the two require are irreconcilable, which is where I take issue. Yes, math classes are less subjective than English or philosophy classes. Arguing with your calculus professor usually consists of telling him that he accidentally wrote x² instead of x³ on the board, and you only dare correct him after you’ve checked your work a few hundred times. But does that mean that math has a value of absolute zero in the world of deep thinkers? Definitely not.
As someone who studies and loves these two seemingly incompatible fields, I have realized that once you hit a certain level, both take really conceptual thinking. Sure, every problem in Calculus I has a definite right answer. But sometimes that answer is infinity, or it’s zero divided by zero. When you really think about what that means, suddenly, you’re not plugging in formulas as much as you’re thinking in weird, abstract thought patterns. Any philosophy major would gladly slurp these up—if he didn’t dive for cover into Leviathan the second he saw an integral sign.
The ability to process those complicated, mathematical thoughts about infinity, dimensions, and bizarre abstractions like String Theory and Chaos Theory, are married to creative talent and have been responsible for great works of literature and art. (And a lot of bad science fiction, but we won’t go there). Flatland, an acerbic, satirical critique of England’s social hierarchy by 19th century British teacher Edwin A. Abbott, is narrated from the perspective of A. Square, who is—you guessed it—a square living in a polygonal society where the more sides you have, the higher your class status. Abbott not only constructs an engrossing two-dimensional world for the purposes of his novel, he corkscrews his reader’s mind when A. Square meets a sphere, the dimensions of which he can’t comprehend because he doesn’t exist in one of them.
The math-art love affair didn’t end with some Victorian teacher waxing philosophical about life in another dimension either. Famed artist M.C. Escher was fascinated by impossible images, and he manipulated objects to built worlds governed by different mathematical laws—where staircases simultaneously go up and down and the viewer can’t tell where the sky ends and the ocean begins. (Once, in a moment of unparalleled geekdom, I had a nightmare that I was in Escher’s “Ascending and Descending,” trapped on an infinitely rising staircase). He’s the perfect example of how the subjective qualities of math and art can harmonize beautifully, and has gotten me through many a homework assignment when I want to pull a Farenheit-451 and torch my calc textbook.
These historical examples aside, few of us enjoy and understand math and literature enough to pursue degrees in both. The other day in Multivariable Calculus, when my professor put a four-dimensional equation on the board and asked if we could “visualize it,” I wanted so badly to turn to somebody and say that no, I can’t visualize it, because I’m not from planet Tralfamadore and can’t see the passage of time. But I refrained. Just as I don’t make math jokes in English classes (or know any math jokes, for that matter), I did not expect that anybody would get my Slaughterhouse-Five reference in a math class, regardless of how perfectly the professor had set me up.
Like a lot of other liberal arts-y kids, people usually ask me a question like, “What the hell do you do with that?” after they get over their shock that I’m an English and math major. What do I do? Well, I graduate knowing that I spent four years studying subjects I was wholeheartedly interested in. And then who knows? Maybe there’s a market out there for the next Flatland.