Arabesques on Early Modern Mathematics

     for Travis Williams

Somehow, before the zero,
the circle door into infinity
     via a nullity,
the world went about
its lucrative business.

Wealth was relative,
     untold riches,
     like Croesus or Midas,
     the sum total
      of all the tea in China.

Somehow, before the zero,
on toes and fingers, beads
     and the abacus,
with Byzantine rigors
of Roman numerals,
the profits were calculated,
the cost of carrying a fish on ice
from a stream in the Caucasus
to the Emperor’s table
known every step of the way.

Somehow the counting houses
     counted, the censuses compiled,
          the taxes and tithes all gathered
in numbers inexact enough
     for each to slice a share
     along the way.

Until the subtle Arab zero,
     a lopsided egg, arrived.
Zero a placeholder,
     at first for nothing,
then, moving leftwards
     into hundreds, thousands,
stands for someone’s
    possessing vaste hordes
     of something.

Naught becomes aught,
     the aught implies the ought,
the obligation to pay
     the precise amount,
every counter counting
the same to the last drachma.
O miserable digit, as onerous
as Arab scimitar, shariah
of unforgiving digits!
Schoolboys now labored,
as though Greek and Latin
were not punishment enough,
on math, the museless art
beneath all trade and commerce.

This Arabized England
spewed forth unerring texts
applying number to space,
to time, to matter:
maps, ephemera of stars
and rising and falling moons,
aids to the perplexed farmer,
chemist and apothecary:
everything that was now had a number,
till Newton yoked number
to the Spheres Celestial,
poor Ptolemy disgraced and banished
so we might one day know
the price of a barrel of Saudi crude.

Even the land is subject to Number
as acres are measured and counted,
then coveted: the commons
enclosed, the poor
an inconvenient sum
to shift to another ledger:
the absorbent colonies.
Let them multiply themselves!

Primers were puzzle books,
    math without algebra,
absent symbolic thinking,
absent even the decimal,
     the fraction,
the answers whole numbers only:
easy to see the descent
    of a middling schoolboy
        from Greek to math
           to the madhouse,
shrieking a stillborn
     calculus in Bedlam,

while certain young women
whose minds did not wander
were set to task on tables
for each year’s almanac:
high tides and low, sunrise and set
at each edition’s latitude; tables
of weights and measures; days
to plant and harvest —
useful work, the knitting of numbers,
the loom of repetitive thinking.

There’s no escape in Faith.
Who drew the first Saint’s halo
presaged the Rome-world crowned
with the transcendent Zero,
an alien cuckold sign, a jest
against infinity and Trinity.

Trinity times Zero is Zero.
Trinity divided by Zero is Infinity.
The square root of Trinity
is an Irrational Number.
The straight and narrow,
the only line to heaven
is only the arc of an infinite circle,
the circle itself a Zero.

There is no escape.
Everything is nothing.
Your bank account is consumed
by zeroes, your numbered days
run down to zero like a bomb-tick.
You cannot knot the naught; it rolls
according to its own laws, its radius
locked to its outer measure
by the madness of pi. Ziggurats
of zeros, numbers’ nebulae,
cosmos uncountable, columns
left, left, leftward until the number
expressed is more than the number
of anything that is or ever was or will be.
Still it does not end, this monster,
this all consuming oh   oh     oh    oh!

The above rant from notes scribbled during a Faculty Colloquium talk by Prof. Travis Williams.


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