A Disappearing Number Novello Theatre 20 September


Projection of Ramanujan

This Complicite show took about three minutes to lose me completely, which must be something of a record.

At the beginning,  Saskia Reeves as maths lecturer Ruth Minnen was establishing the well-known mathematical joke 1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + …. = -1/12.  You do this by some plausible but incorrect manipulations of the Riemann zeta function ζ(s).  Unfortunately, here Ruth Minnen wrote (many, many times) ξ (xi) for ζ (zeta) and unfortunately ξ(s) is a different function (in fact, it’s related to ζ(s)), so this is not something a maths lecturer would have done.  That threw me completely!

There was a similar episode at the end–though this time you really had to be looking for a fight to take it amiss–where after she had died Ruth quoted the following beautiful passage to console Al:

What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.

What’s wrong with that (apart from showing up the rest of the text)?  Well, would an overworked maths lecturer really have known a passage from an obscure work by John Berger (And our faces, my heart, brief as photos)?

Then again, there was the irritation of a series of jokes all of which I felt I already knew too well, from ‘What’s the difference between a pregnant woman and a terrorist?’  to 1729 = 13 + 123 = 103 + 93 , and even something about conformal symmetry in string theory.

Apart from annoying me, the show seemed to be about the romance between American (Indian-descended) businessman Al Cooper and English maths lecturer Ruth Minnen in apposition to the collaboration between Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy and untaught Indian genius Srinivasa Ramanujan, and made a series of points like:

–India is an important country these days

–call centres are outsourced to India

–Uxbridge is near Heathrow

–lots of people originally of Indian descent live near there

–academics are often overworked

–India can be overwhelming for foreign visitors.

Must have been aimed at the tourist market then, since none of this could be new for a London audience!

There’s more about the maths–and a positive view of the show, not to mention the source of the picture above–here.


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2 Responses to “A Disappearing Number Novello Theatre 20 September”

  1. Michael A. Gottlieb Says:

    There is nothing in the introduction (or elsewhere) of any of the Feynman Lectures books (including The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Feynman Lectures on Computation, and Feynman Lectures on Gravitation) about Arlene Feynman (or any of Feynman’s other family members). You are probably thinking of the book “What do YOU Care What Other People Think?,” whose title is quoted from Arlene, and in which Feynman discusses his history with her.

  2. notesofanidealist Says:

    Thanks for your comment–I’ve now removed the extraneous material from my posting (I think I also ascribed a view to Hardy that in fact belonged to Littlewood). The Feynman Lectures were the only thing of his I read as a student (which is when my memory dates from), but it’s quite possible I’ve conflated a couple of passages and given them a more direct application to his life than was justified.

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