I remember when my brother taught me about infinity. It was a concept that had me upset for some reason. And I couldn’t grok it. How could something go on forever and ever? In true big-brother fashion, Phil said: “Imagine that you ride your tricycle around the block and never stop.” I stared at him: “NEVER STOP?” This made me so sad. I’d never be able to sit at the kitchen table again? Never be able to hug my mommy and daddy? How could this be a good thing?
“That’s right, NEVER,” he said, possibly laughing menacingly, looking at my scared little face. I probably cried. This conversation about infinity gave me the same sick-to-my -stomach feeling that I felt when I looked in the mirror in the closet in our den. There were three mirrors atop a built-in storage unit, two of them facing each other so that the image of me looking in the mirror went on endlessly. This both fascinated and terrified me. During this time I also lay awake at night worrying about death. (Anyone who says being a child is easy is—wrong.)
Thinking about my conversation with Phil now, and how emotional the concept of infinity was to me, I wonder if I shouldn’t have pushed myself (or been pushed) to go farther in math. I got shaky in trigonometry, zoned out in calculus. But if I’d been encouraged, who knows? Maybe I could have been a mathematician. Doubtful. But I do rue the day that I gave up trying to understand calculus. I guess higher math is lost to me forever. Writing this book about Paul Erdős, and meeting so many wonderful mathematicians has been both a joy and a frustration. I like them so much, but I won’t ever truly understand what they are talking about. Though recently I had the experience of kind of getting something Joel Spencer was telling me. And being very excited about that. (Don’t ask me what it was, I won’t be able to explain it.)
The reason I’m writing today is twofold—one because I have wanted to talk about infinity for a while, and two because some nice things have been happening with The Boy, and since I’m officially on a Twitter break, this seems to be a good place to say what I want to say. (And I don’t know how to remove the automatic feed to Twitter, so it will be there, too, kind of by accident. Anyway…) And what I want to say is: THANK YOU, WORLD.
I might make some mathematicians’ eyebrows raise by using the word this way, but I am infinitely happy (but I AM!) and grateful for how much lovely attention THE BOY WHO LOVED MATH is getting. Please go to The Boy page to see it all (or as much as I know).
But before you go, I have to redeem my brother in case you’re thinking he’s not a good guy. He is. He’s a great guy, and not because of what I’m about to tell you. The other day he called, and said, “I was just driving back from doing family research in Harrisburg, and I put on the New York Times podcast about the best books of the year. Your book is there! YOUR book!” His pride in me made me so happy. It made me cry. I love him to infinity.
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