Math makes me clammy. In the presence of a percentage or an equation, I lose my bearings, get fogged in. When I'm suddenly on the hook to split a bill three ways, numbers bear down on me like a dream. And not like the lambent dream world I've built out of words, the Wonderland constructed of "susurration," "sfumato," and "skylarker." To me, most of math is colorless and blinding.
Except for fractal geometry. I was introduced to this branch of mathematics while editing for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science several years ago, and I've been an ardent fan ever since. Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, or the geometry of nature, described "self-similarity" in forms: If you cut a cauliflower in half? You still have a cauliflower. In fact, if you were to break a cauliflower into a thousand tiny florets, you would have a thousand tiny cauliflowers. The cauliflower is self-similar. A cloud, too, is self-similar -- billows upon billows upon billows. A nautilus shell is self-similar, its chambers growing smaller and smaller as they spiral toward an impossibly small central room. Fractal geometry gathers to itself the objects that defy tidy Euclidean geometry, with its circles, cones, and squares. It welcomes what is deemed chaos, even as it catalogs chaos's graceful patterns.
The news has been terrible this week. The news has been terrible all year. The news is terrible. At a distance, it all looks like horror or bluster, often both. But there are patterns to be found there too -- systems like a sinister nautilus, leading into dark and darker rooms.
So I think about Mandelbrot, gone 6 years now, describing in his deep, accented voice, the human lungs. Our lungs branch out from the trachea all the way to the alveoli, like trees hung upside down in our chests. We, too, are filled with chaos. And, thus, we, too, are filled with grace. If only we could move through the fog of panic, the dreamland of variation, to look close, closer, very close, until we see, groping about, our arms, our hands, our fingers branching out toward one another.