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“Existential Love and Math”

December 10, 2013

On Sunday, I went to the MOMA PS1 with two friends to see a joint presentation by mathematician Edward Frenkel and economist/artist Laurent DeRobert titled Existential Love and Math. Frenkel is a highly respected and accomplished mathematician and is currently a professor at UC Berkeley. He first made his break into the art world with his production of the short film Rite of Love and Death in 2010. Suffice it to say this was a very unique step on Frenkel’s part, given the unglamorous reputation associated with being an academic, let alone a mathematician. Recently, Frenkel released his book Love and Math and the event at the MOMA was a natural continuation of his desire to bring mathematics to the mainstream.

I cannot say nearly as much about Laurent Derobert, as I am outside his circle. According to some fragmentary biographical information, he has a PhD in economics and he explained to the audience that one of his mathematical influences was his experiences teaching applied mathematics. My impression, however, is that he is regarded and regards himself chiefly as an artist. (However, I do find it disappointing, if not strange, that a google search reveals very little information about Derobert; I could not find a professional webpage or direct way to contact him, and the only work of his that I could find available was a link on Amazon France to his book Fragments of Existential Mathematics, which however is currently unavailable and unreviewed.)

In any case, the evening began with Frenkel comparing the lack of appreciation for mathematics in society at large to a fictitious scenario in which painting is studied without any reference to the great masters such as van Gogh and Picasso. As one can imagine, the subject of painting in such a world would be devoid of lineage and it may very well be reduced to the art of repetitive brush strokes. This, unfortunately, quite accurately describes how mathematics is commonly taught in schools, where rules and formulas are introduced rather mechanically and without reference to their origins.

From this starting point, Frenkel goes on to argue how mathematics and art contain many elements in common. One of these is the central role that abstraction plays. To illustrate, Frenkel described the concurrent introduction of higher dimensions into mathematics and physics as well as art in the early twentieth century. In the former scenario, we have figures such as Poincaré and Einstein who developed the mathematics of special and general relativity, and in doing so, revolutionized our conception of the universe in which we live. Indeed, whereas Euclidean geometry had been the model for reality for over two millennia, and its absoluteness was even regarded in Kant’s philosophy as being fundamental to our ability to perceive the world, the new vista of a curved spacetime was now provided solely by the powerful abstraction of mathematics. In the world of art, we have in the same period, the work Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 by Marchel Duchamp in 1912, in which Duchamp departs from traditional painting and attempts to incorporate the dimension of time into a static, two-dimensional canvas. Frenkel, via this example and others, suggests that it is through such novel and powerful ways of introducing abstraction that we soar to higher levels in mathematics and art.

Frenkel goes on to explain briefly the relationship between love and math. Despite tattooing a mathematical formula on his lover in his film Rite of Love and Death (a formula discovered by Frenkel by the way), Frenkel explains that it is not that the case that he thinks there is a formula for love (thankfully). But rather, he believes (if I understood him correctly) that math and love can share aspects in common, namely, its ability to infuse passion and desire. On this point however, I do not recall if Frenkel explained what is unique about mathematics’s intersection with love (in contrast to any other creative pursuit), something I personally would have liked to be clarified.

In DeRobert’s presentation, DeRobert describes an (obviously toy) model which is supposed to mathematically compute, for lack of a better word, happiness in terms of certain variables attached to observers and the world. This is of course nothing extraordinary, as economists and game theorists do these sorts of things for a living. What was perhaps slightly unique about DeRobert’s model was the existential qualities he attached to the variables. In his model, he had vectors labelling observers and the world, each of which had three components: the objective, the subjective, and the ideal. That is, persons can be described by how they are, how they experience themselves, and how they wish to be. Similarly, the world can be described by how it is, how it is experienced, and how it ought to be. DeRobert then went on to describe various equations that relate these quantities, which naturally, are based upon intuitive assumptions about human nature. For instance, there was an amusing slide in which two variables being negatively correlated translated into the statements “The more I love, you the less you care” and “The less I care, the more you love me.”

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Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

The presentations concluded with a discussion session moderated by artist Peter Coffin. I found this to be a very engaging discussion and one of the highlights of the event. For one, it was a very intelligent and honest discussion about topics rarely discussed in the rigid confines of academic circles: beauty and truth. Second, one rarely gets to hear an artist or an intellectual reveal his or her personal opinions directly, and it is always a pleasure to see such divulsions of private feelings in an unrehearsed and organic manner. Concerning the subject of truth, I found it very refreshing to hear three different viewpoints espoused by the men on the floor. Frenkel made it clear he is a Platonist: a mathematician discovers truths. DeRobert, on the other hand, says that an artist does not so much find truth as creates truth. To contrast these views, Coffin chimed in that he feels that art serves as a catalyst for truth. This last idea was completely new to me and I am still feeling its echo between the walls of my mind.

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One of the images invoked in the discussion of truth.

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