You’re really not going to like it: Peter Fraser’s “Mathematics” for the Impatient

“Forty-two” is the response given by Deep Thought, the supercomputer programmed to calculate the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This answer, while delivered after centuries of waiting and couched within some serious expectation management (‘You’re really not going to like it’), has been used as the basis for the argument in Max Tegmark’s 2014 book Our Mathematical Universe, which in turn influenced the series Mathematics by Welsh photographer Peter Fraser. I saw a recent manifestation of Fraser’s Mathematics yesterday, fittingly curated by Peter Campany in the Real Jardín Botánico here in Madrid as part of PHotoEspaña 17. Walking around the beautiful gardens and photography exhibitions (Elliott Erwitt’s Cuba also installed in the Real Jardín Botánico), was a pleasant distraction from the waiting, without much hope, for Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. For some reason, while visiting Mathematics I asked my son, Eneko, to mimic the pose of a boy in one of Fraser’s photographs. (Actually it was Eneko who recognized that he looked like the boy in the photo).

Then while leafing through the book Mathematics in the pop-up bookstore, I again invited Eneko to intervene, this time in a series of photos I took of each page of the book (knowing I was going to post about the exhibition today), as he and Rebeka impatiently waited for me to finish, so we could go and explore more of the gardens (waiting for me and my blog has been one of the main features of our trip so far…)

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Obviously, it goes without saying that these photos of photos and photos of photos in a book are pale imitations of the real things, yet these staged interventions made me think about how the ideas of art imitating life and life imitating art can bring us back to the same texts that inspired both Fraser and Tegmark (in response to Adams). Here is a passage from Tegmark’s book:

I find it very appropriate that Douglas Adams joked about 42 because mathematics has played a striking role in these successes. The idea that our universe is somehow mathematical goes back at least to the Pythagoreans of Ancient Greece, and has spawned centuries of discussion among physicists and philosophers.

And here is Fraser’s preface:

In the 4th Century B.C. Aristotle credited Pythagoras with the view that the principles of mathematics are the principles of all things. Aristotle’s own philosophic, spiritual and mathematical thinking led him to propose that at the deepest level, reality is mathematical in nature.

On reading this, and thinking about Fraser’s creative intervention into these scientific debates, I recalled the statement Aristotle makes in his Physics:

art partly completes what nature cannot bring to a finish, and partly imitate her (Physics 199a)

Appreciating human artistic intervention in the mathematics of nature in Fraser’s photographs also brought me back to the reality of climate change and, to repeat Deep Thought’s caveat (‘you’re really not going to like it’), in an alarming way. On reading more about Tegmark, I discovered an essay he wrote in 2016 called ‘Climate Change for the Impatient: A Nuclear Mini Ice Age’. Tegmark begins this essay as follows:

Everyone has heard about climate change caused by fossil fuels, which threatens to raise Earth’s average surface temperature by about 3-5°C by the year 2100 unless we take major steps toward mitigation. But there’s an eerie silence about the other major climate change threat, which might lower Earth’s average surface temperature by 7°C: a decade-long mini ice age caused by a U.S.-Russia nuclear war.

He continues:

Unless we take stronger action than there’s current political will for, we’re likely to face both dramatic fossil-fuel climate change and dramatic nuclear climate change within a century, give or take. Since no politician in their right mind would launch global nuclear Armageddon on purpose, the nuclear war triggering the mini ice age will most likely start by accident or miscalculation.

Now we have such a politician who is not in his right mind. Trump’s idiotic withdrawal of the US from the Paris Climate Agreement is not only the act of an ignorant denier of science, but also of an impatient and impertinent bully who cited a puerile desire to be ‘top of the pack’ as a rationale for increasing the US’ nuclear arsenal. While we can rejoice in the way that art adds to nature, imitates nature and how life can intervene in art, unless this megalomaniac is stopped soon the work of Pythagoras, Aristotle, Tegmark and Fraser will all be in vain.

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