Thinking About Thinking - 2017


The Mathematics of Love

By Balaji Prasad

"Love will find its way,
through all languages
on its own."
~ Rumi

“Love" is a much misunderstood and misused word in our collective lexicon. Counterintuitively, we use the term in a way that almost directly contradicts what it purports to be. This can be confusing. But that is how we human beings are. We say things that we like to feel rather than what we really feel. Or, sometimes, we say things because we want others to think that is what we feel. "Mean what you say, and say what you mean" would not be a common rebuke, were we a less complicated species. Reality and illusion are both important to the prestidigitator. Blurring the lines between the two enables the magician to weave webs of illusion for the audience. So we say we love, while we do something else.

Just for the love of the game

Tennis offers a clue to the meaning of love. Theories abound for why the scores in tennis go from love-all to love-fifteen, and so on. One explanation is that it comes from the French word for egg (l'ouef), because an egg resembles a zero. But no one is really sure, especially since the French themselves prefer to say “zero", rather than “love", while keeping score. The Oxford English dictionary says “it seems to have been adapted from the phrase 'to play for love (of the game)', i.e. to play for nothing."

It's a show about nothing!

A famous Seinfeld episode has the main characters promote their proposal for a TV show as “it's a show about nothing". This greatly intrigues and even excites the potential producers of the show, leading them to sign the eccentric team on for a season.

Why is it that nothing is so exciting? Maybe nothing is exciting because it doesn't try to be something? Maybe we get tired of the constant attempts to spin things into things that they are not? Maybe it is refreshing to do something because you just want to do it, not because you must, and not because you want to project something.

So, it seems plausible that tennis players did play for the love of the game, before the love of fame put the game to shame.

What's love got to do with it?

Love-all is a beautiful state. Everything, and everyone, is equal. A serene sense of peace and calm fill the air. The game is pristine pure. It could go anywhere from here. The potential, the possibilities, are endless. Anticipation of possibilities is more exciting than the culmination. Would you watch a game as eagerly if you knew how it was going to end? Would you watch the cliffhanger with as much excitement, if you knew, in advance, whether the man will scramble to safety, or plunge to his doom?

There is something about things that are not unraveled yet; there is something tantalizing about a thing that has the potential to become anything. Out of the serenity of nothing, explodes so many possibilities, almost violently, driven by the power of imagination. There is some kind of an engagement that seems to lie between the states of being and becoming. Somehow, the word “love" seems to fit in this space. In the space between nothing and something.

The Big Bang

Maybe nothing is not quite nothing. Physicists have argued that the universe did explode out of nothing, but it doesn't sit well with the sense of something and nothing that we have gotten used to, in our day-to-day existence. It could be that Hawking and the others are wrong. Maybe it is our sense of these things that makes nothing nothing, and something something. Maybe we lack building blocks of thinking and expression needed to see the true nature of the universe. We grope around with the tools of mathematics that underlie physics, and arrive at conclusions that seem out of this world. Maybe those conclusions seem out of this world, because they are out of this world. At least, as we know the world.

Say less, love more

Maybe love lives in a different universe than the one we generally operate in: one for which we lack the right language constructs needed to articulate and explain its operation. Maybe this is why playing for nothing feels like an act of love, but we can't quite put a finger on it, as to why it feels that way.

Putting our finger on things that we cannot see is hard. Try holding an atom in your hand. Maybe we spend too much time in poking the wispy smoke with our fingers trying to touch something that we believe exists, but which, nevertheless, eludes our anxious search. Our narratives run in a universe, parallel to the one in which life flows, and where we flow, where we actually live. Or, could live, if we weren't too busy trying to create expressions that seem like life, but fall short. Maybe we work too hard, too long at the task of living, and forget, in the process, to live? Or, maybe, more correctly, to love?

Think less, love more

Many, over the years, have suggested that if you love what you do, everything follows from that. But you cannot love what you do, if you are not playing the game, but hyperanalyzing it instead. Just because you have the ability to do so. Also, measuring. Constantly. Whose score is higher? Whose stroke is better? We can ask all these questions, or we can simply play … for the love of the game.

No math involved, even in math

I teach high-school kids. Math is one of the things I teach. It is fascinating to see young students transcend “difficult" problems when they realize that they were just thinking too hard, and engaging too little. Engagement – and enjoyment – comes from love. Even math benefits from love. As does everything else. Oh, and if the score matters, there is nothing more powerful than the love of what you do, to get you those scores. But, strangely, you have to take your eyes off the scoreboard first. Then you win. But, only incidentally. In any case, you weren't looking to win. Because, your reward came from what you did. You engaged. You enjoyed. You loved. You lived. And, maybe you won. But who cares?