David Foster Wallace, Inspiration and Math | The stone ax


David Foster Wallace, American writer.
David Foster Wallace, American writer.

In the book of interviews with David Foster Wallace published in Spanish by the Palido Fuego publishing house, the New York author talks about his ghosts and his hobbies; matters that oscillate between fable and science.

For example, Foster Wallace tells us how he was able to take a subject as abstract as mathematical science and expose it clearly, making it not only understandable, but also enjoyable for someone who did not know mathematics. Thus was born Everything and more, a brief history of infinity (RBA), a curious work where Foster Wallace traces the history of mathematical infinity and reveals its mysteries from the 5th century BC with the famous Zenon paradox, in which Achilles appears trying to reach a turtle. In this way it was accepted that since space is infinitely divisible, Achilles will never be able to reach it.

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From Zenon and his paradox, Foster Wallace takes us to Georg Cantor (1845 – 1918), a famous mathematician born in Russia, although a German national, who was a pioneer in set theory and who built his mathematical theory of infinity. To arrive at this theory, Cantor used the paradox that Galileo formulated in his day, where the quarrelsome man from Pisa refuted the logical principle that “the whole is greater than any of its parts.” To demonstrate his reply, he took the set of numbers whose square root is a natural number, pointing out that since there is in each of them a number that is its square root, and for each number there is a square, it is impossible for there to be more than one kind than another.

We have the rare ability to conceive things that we cannot conceive

In this way, from abstraction to abstraction, David Foster Wallace leads us through the language of numbers until we reach the Holy Grail of mathematics, which is infinity. The journey is achieved by identifying mathematics with metaphysics, showing that we have the rare ability to conceive things that we cannot conceive. It refers to such things as, for example, that we are made of water, and that water is fundamentally hydrogen, and that hydrogen is flammable. However, we are not flammable.

During such an amazing trip there are different stops with scientific names like Axiomatic Set Theory, Binomial Theorem, Pythagorean Theorem and so on. As he makes his way, he shows us something as revealing as that, since we go to school, with the first classes, we are taught that numbers are things. In this way so didactic and critical at the same time, Foster Wallace leads us to ask ourselves the following questions: Where are the numbers if they were real things? What do they look like? What is a 3?

Poets don’t go crazy, but chess players do. Mathematicians go crazy, and cashiers go crazy, but creative artists rarely do. I am not attacking logic: I am only saying that this danger lies in logic, not in imagination

Gilbert K Chesterton

According to Foster Wallace, the numbers are like the speculations of young children or like the ideas of tired teenagers, to put it in their own words. At the beginning of Everything and more, when referring to the madness of Cantor, who ended his days in a mental hospital, Foster Wallace quotes Gilbert K Chesterton: “Poets do not go crazy, but chess players do. Mathematicians go crazy, and cashiers go crazy, but creative artists rarely do. I am not attacking logic: I am only saying that this danger lies in logic, not in imagination ”.

Perhaps the struggle that Foster Wallace maintained in life to combine creativity and logic was what led him to suicide, since, the closer he got to reaching his turtle, the more distant he was from it. In the long run, this drove him mad, just like other mathematicians before him. But maybe this is a hypothesis and we already know what happens with hypotheses. They are neither true nor false, for a reason they are hypotheses.

The stone ax is a section where Montero GlezWith a will to prose, he exercises his particular siege to scientific reality to show that science and art are complementary forms of knowledge.

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