Dancing Numbers

I can’t resist one last post before I go off into the webless wilderness of the Atlantic coast. I wasn’t sure what to expect with this blogging idea but I was more than taken aback by how fast the blog’s existence seems to have spread. It’s exciting.

Over the years I’ve read articles about Twyla Tharp, the american dancer and coreographer. Somehow, I always found great affinity to her ideas. A few months ago, in a New York Times article, she described how she sometimes went for days without dealing with numbers (hid all the clocks in her house, for example) to give the intuitive side of her brain more prominence. Despite being a number theorist, I found the thought strangely appealing rather than heretic.

This morning at the Harvard Coop I found she just wrote a book “The creative habit” (published by Simon and Schuster) that I hadn’t seen before. I just had to buy it. Here’s a representative bit:

“I will keep stressing the point about creativity being augmented by routine and habit. Get used to it. In these pages a philosopical tug of war will periodically rear its head. It is the perennial debate, born in the Romantic era, between the beliefs that all creative acts are born of (a) some transcendent, inexplicable Dyonisian act of inspiration, a kiss of God on you brow that allows you to give the world the Magic Flute, or (b) hard work.

If it isn’t obvious already, I come down on the side of hard work. That’s why this book is called ‘The Creative Habit’. Creativity is a habit, and the best creativity is a result of good work habits. That’s it in a nutshell.”

Other ideas in the book remind me of L. Pasteur’s quote: “Chance favors the prepared mind”. To students I have often compared doing mathematics to fishing. You mostly sit around waiting for ideas to bite but when a big one does you better be ready.

Then a strange thing happened. I was sitting on the lawn of Harvard Yard reading the book when a guy comes over to ask me if he could borrow it. He wanted to get a picture sitting on the lawn of Harvard Yard reading a book. “Isn’t that what people do at Harvard?”, he said. When he finished posing for the photo and was ready to leave he asked me “And who the hell is Twyla Tharp?”


2 Responses to Dancing Numbers

  1. J. Ellenberg says:

    It’s quite frustrating, isn’t it? When you see after months of apparently fruitless head-beating how to accomplish something quite simply — and you say to yourself, why did I waste all those months _not_ seeing how to do it this way? But I think I’m with you — (and Poincare felt the same way, just to argue from authority) — some kind of funny cognitive alchemy is going on all that time you spend confused. And when the right answer finally wades out of the muck, well, somehow you needed all that thick nutritious muck.

  2. Well, I’ve seen Mick Jagger dance on stage before and after being coached by Twyla Tharp. Before, he looked like a rooster on amphetamines. After, well, it’s really about projecting emotion in a way interpolated between acting and music. As to the Math, he was the first to get for any musical group (for the Rolling Stones) $1,000,000.00 in advance for a record not yet recorded. The Beatles were irate, and fired their attorney. Mick jagger, of course, has a degree from the London School of Economics. Which is very mathematical.

    “Chance favors the prepared mind” — exactly.

    The oldest model we have of the artistic process, is that of the pre-Socratic Greeks. The premise was that an artist had to practice several hours a day, every day. Sculp, paint, poetry, melody, whatever.

    Then, when one of the 9 Muses (all the daughters of Mnemosyme = Memory) hit you with divine inspiration, you did not get in the way — you let it travel down your fingers, or vocal cords, or whatever. You’ve got to practice, to keep your chopsw (as the Jazz scene puts it).

    And why should Math be any different? Since Pythagoras, Math and Music joined as divine, fractured loose from the merely terrestrial entertainments.

    Sure, there SEEM to be exceptions. Archimedes, Netwon, Gauss, Ramanujan, Feynman, Terry Tao — but guess what? The worked all the time. They made it look effortless. They made it look like play.

    Play music. Play Math. But work every day to make sure that you play at the highest level.

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