Irrational Obsession

colorful square watercolor piece

Euler's number, or 'e' finished.

I fit one artist stereotype quite well — I was never a math star. Far from it. I stumbled through pre-calculus and closed the door and assumed I would always bellyflop when it came to mathematics. When I took my place in the world of practical numbers - one fleshed out in spreadsheets, budgets, and investment data - I realized I liked looking for patterns within the numbers and that data held some luster.

When our son brought home his interest in irrational numbers and mathematical theorems, his excitement was contagious. His knowledge far outstrips mine, but I shared his fascination with Pi as a middle schooler. It is really fun to think of numbers unfurling in space, marching out beyond imagination and light. I also rediscovered e or Euler’s number while reading Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures. In a scene in the celebrated movie, the protagonist Katherine Johnson used Euler’s number to calculate the trajectory of John Glenn’s space capsule on a blackboard. That moment inspired me to plot the numbers of e using a color algorithm - my own take on a color trajectory. I wanted to engage numbers in a new way and found there was an architecture, a different kind of reveal as I painted row after row of squares that looked like chiclets. I found cadence in irrationality and a new correspondence with color. As I painted I recognized important numbers in my life, some truncated, some fully intact like a strand of pearls. Seven was highly featured, as were two and four. Eight made an appearance in hot pink. Zero, a muted gray. Five is sienna. I played with the saturation of pigment so my interpretation of the number didn’t seem too static. It took a long time to get the right combination of color and I made a lot of mistakes because it’s easy to drop numbers in translation. Now Duncan is onto the notion of infinities within infinities and informs me that I need to start peering at the crevices between rational numbers. I’m intrigued.

colorful square watercolor piece in progress
'e' in progress.

If you are curious to learn more about e and the math in Hidden Figures click here.

“The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also just a start,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can’t be grasped, six five three five , at a glance,
eight nine, by calculation,
seven nine, through imagination,
or even three two three eight in jest, or by comparison
four six to anything
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth ends at thirty-odd feet.
Same goes for fairy tale snakes, though they make it a little longer.
The caravan of digits that is pi
does not stop at the edge of the page,
but runs off the table and into the air,
over the wall, a leaf, a bird’s nest, the clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bloatedness and bottomlessness.
Oh how short, all but mouse-like is the comet’s tail!
How frail is a ray of starlight, bending in any old space!
Meanwhile two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size
the year nineteen hundred and seventy-three sixth floor
number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurement two fingers a charade and a code,
in which we find how blithe the trostle sings!
and please remain calm,
and heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not pi, that won’t happen,
it still has an okay five,
and quite a fine eight,
and all but final seven,
prodding and prodding a plodding eternity
to last.”

Wislawa Szymborska

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