Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Poetry of Numbers

Yesterday, I met some of my new advisees for this academic year.  One of them, in her application materials had mentioned her focus on numbers.  As she pointed out in conversation with me, it should not seem like a surprise that a health economics student would have a focus on numbers.  And, I would have to agree, but (nor surprisingly), I think there is something more.  

I think that there are some economists who focus much more on the models rather than on the numbers or the intuition rather than the numbers.  And there are plenty of people who have no interest in economics who think about numbers all the time.  Who notice numbers.  Who take an interest in numbers.  Who see the numbers all around them (in patterns and find a rhythm) and think about the meaning of numbers.  So, I'm not saying that I question my new advisee's conclusion that a love of numbers in a health economics student should not be a surprise. I'm just (as I often do) thinking a little more broadly and trying to (to use a buzz-phrase) think outside the box a bit.

I almost think about it as the "poetry of numbers".  I used the phrase casually in conversation yesterday and then took some time to ponder it.  Then, I decided to look up a definition of poetry.  I went to the website for a definition.  Here is a quote from the "What is Poetry?" page of that website telling us that poetry:
is an art form in which human language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to, or instead of, its notional and semantic content. It consists largely of oral or literary works in which language is used in a manner that is felt by its user and audience to differ from ordinary prose.
How can we relate this to numbers when it talks about language and semantic content?  I think it is actually quite straightforward if we continue to think outside the box a bit.  My graduate school advisor, Dr. Catherine McLaughlin, when we spoke about foreign language requirements for degrees would suggest (and this is a paraphrase rather than a verbatim quote) that there was an implicit rather than explicit foreign language requirement in the economics program at Michigan.  The requirement was to know math, and "speaking math" was like a foreign language.  Now, "speaking math" involves a lot of symbolic representation and logic as well as numbers, but it certainly involves a lot of numbers.  I think that the poetry of numbers comes from noticing them all around us and thinking about the patterns and rhythm of numbers, thinking about the meaning, thinking about the symbolism.

Some people just see numbers as a means to an end.  Others, or at least I, see numbers as something that in and of themselves have meaning.  I'm not talking about numerology.  I'm just saying that I enjoy thinking about numbers all the time and thinking about what each means to me.

Learning about numbers can involve a rhythm.  At the school my children have attended (at least through eighth grade for the oldest), they use rhythms to learn multiplication.  Marching and stamping out the beat and emphasizing when a multiple of the number in question is reached.  "One, two, THREE, four, five SIX, seven, eight, NINE."  There, is not simple prose.  There is an artistic and symbolic beauty to that.  

I can even relate it to my spirituality.  There are many numbers in the Bible that have all sorts of meaning.  Forty days of rain for Noah and forty days in the desert for Jesus.  Coincidence that those should be the same?  Twelve apostles.  Forgiveness not seven but seven times seventy-seven time (Matthew 18).  There are plenty of times when seven is used in the Bible.  Other numbers that I think of immediately from stories in the Bible like five loaves and two fish to feed 5,000 men. Numbers were all around.  Numbers that make it easy to remember stories and to reconnect to stories.

And what started my numbers and spirituality connection in my blogging...a pattern of numbers.  A bib number that read "1313", that I read as "thirteen thirteen".  The many times I have looked for something in the pattern of numbers I see in my running and my life.  My latest (although I have not written about it yet) being what seems to be an inevitable pace to achieve despite all attempts to slow it down when I run with several of my running friends...7:45 per mile.  How will I interpret that?  What meaning will I find?  In "prose" it is a time--seven minutes, forty-five seconds.  In that case, we just read it and don't think any more about it.  But in poetry, it could take on a meaning of its own and have symbolism.  As I think about where I would find a spiritual meaning, for the few Biblical books that have 45 verses in a single chapter it could be read as one verse--Chapter 7 verse 45.  However, if I play with it and ask what it might symbolize, it could be 74:5 (perhaps from a Psalm).  Alternatively, it could be 7:4-5.  In fact, I will write about Chapter 7 verses 4 and 5 from the Book of Sirach--specific to the Catholic Bible--about humility).   

So, the pattern comes from my life.  The pattern can even be thought of as a rhythm--especially when it comes to running.  The repetition of the same time--almost like a mantra.  The rhythm of feet running a 7:45 mile is much different than the rhythm of feet running a 6:05 mile or a 9:05 mile.  The meaning touches my soul.  Patterns, rhythms, meaning and symbolism.  Isn't that poetry?  The poetry of numbers is a reality for me in my running and spiritual lives. To make reference to the title of my old blog, the poetry of numbers is something that helps to provide a context for part of my physical and spiritual well-being.  

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