The Fibonacci Sequence: each number in the sequence consists of the sum of the two numbers preceding it in the sequence (0+1=1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, 3+5=8…). The Golden Spiral is created by squaring each number in the sequence. The sequence continues infinitely.
Gabriel García Márquez was a master of words and a bad speller. In Living to Tell the Tale, Márquez described confronting his “spelling atrocities”. When challenged by his headmaster’s critique, Márquez referred to a dictionary passage. The headmaster opened the dictionary “to the exact page” and responded to teenage Márquez with a “bravo”. Like Márquez, in the film Hidden Figures, Dorthy Vaughan —who helped send the first astronaut into earth’s orbit— rushed to a bookshelf to find a mathematical formula, because she knew exactly where to look. Like these thinkers, throughout my education I’ve created a roadmap in my head connecting concepts and books and page numbers.
As a child I learned through observation and by that observation, crawling morphed into standing and standing into walking; by observing, letters morphed into words and words into stories. In fact, I did not speak a full word until just past by 1st birthday, on my mother’s 30th birthday, when I pointed to the window and said “outside” to my astonished family. I’ve explored the art of language and spelling —French and German, Old English and Latin, Spanish and Portuguese— much the way I learned to speak: knowing there would always be a dictionary to scour or a conversation to listen to, there would always be somewhere to look.
But there was a language I didn’t know how to observe: mathematics. Mathematics exists without humans, something language cannot do. And though I found the language of mathematics in books, I could not fathom how mathematics communicates a planet’s orbit or the expansion of the universe or machinery or movement or particles.
Though I admired math from afar, I feared it, caught in the myth of innate potential —that white males possess innate mathematical ability while women and people of color do not. A myth debunked by bright people practicing math today and by teaching strategies like Jo Boaler’s, articulating how mathematical ability lies in curiosity and strategy, diligence and collaboration.
The fear began to dissipate when I truly observed math for the first time, watching “Doodling in Math Class”. In the episode on the Fibonacci Sequence, mathematician Vi Hart draws on pineapples and pine cones, explaining the structure of the Golden Spiral and the sequence of growth. Which urged my 11-year-old self to stay up late into the night, filling page after page with the sequence. Unaware that the comfort I felt from the infinite numbers would spiral into my future.
In the present, nearly a decade after the night I spent tangled in the Fibonacci Sequence, I paint the Golden Spiral in a storefront window. And I find myself, once again, lost in the numbers marching to infinity. Infinity the concept that “doesn’t have just one answer” mathematician Eugenia Cheng said, “it doesn’t just have one way of thinking about it”.
In the moments between brushstrokes, I can feel the thrum of uncertainty in the world around me and I realize that the present and infinity are alike: both subject to many different ways of thinking, both reaching for the unknown, and both rooted in mathematics.
“What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible,” said philosopher Umberto Eco. “And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.” And perhaps too then, through mathematical structure. In my life the Fibonacci Sequence never wavered, because the structure, the language, of math is consistent, but the way we think about math adapts and changes: numbers turn to squares and a spiral cuts through them; the notebook pages I scrawled “0+1=1, 1+1=2, 1+2=3…” morph into a year’s worth of words and brushstrokes.
Right now, chaos nearly as incomprehensible as infinity is made observable. Observable in the systemic racism sparking protests across the US, observable as the climate changes –forcing thousands of firefighters to battle Californian wildfires, observable as the number of COVID-19 deaths passes one million. Yet, all the while, I am reminded that beneath everything is a mathematical structure that shapes mollusk’s shells and plants, shapes embryos in utero and fly’s flight patterns, shapes the movement of storms and whirlpools, and shapes the tendrils of our galaxy.
Listen to the essay below: