Arcadia

I had missed Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia in its original production in 1993, so this evening was my first time seeing it. What a breathtaking experience! I have seen many plays, and a good number of those plays touched on math or science, yet this is the very first time I have ever felt that the beauty and wonder of the mathematics that runs through our universe was truly appreciated and expressed by a playwright.

Stoppard’s central thesis, which emerges only gradually, is profound: That the romantic movement which swept through the arts around two hundred years ago was followed later by an analogous sea change in science. Specifically, he notes that the arts evolved from a classical aesthetic — in which symmetry and proportion was the highest ideal — to a romantic aesthetic — in which the very impermanence of things enhances their value and meaning.

Then he connects this with the transition from classical physics to modern physics, with the key turning point being the realizations by Clausius and Lord Kelvin (although they are not mentioned by name) that time’s arrow points one way, and that all energy eventually dissipates. This was a substantial change from the view prevalent from Aristotle through Newton that the universe was a kind of clockwork — a clock that could theoretically just as well run backwards as forwards.

And he manages to do all this within a fascinating historical and literary mystery that contains fascinating human relationships and a central emotional arc between the characters which perfectly matches the philosophical argument.

Early in the second act one of the characters gave an excellent disquisition on iterative functions and the mathematical foundations of fractals. And the genius of it is that everything the character said was perfectly clear to the non-technical Broadway audience.

At one point in this speech, the character talked about “The ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about—clouds—daffodils—waterfalls—and what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things are full of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were to the Greeks.”

And I was completely brought up short, because the mystery of what happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in is precisely what had originally led me to discover the full power of procedural textures. It suddenly occurred to me how amazing this moment was. Here I was, sitting in a Broadway theatre, listening to an actor up on stage describing the mathematical ideas that led to my own research.

How often does that happen?

Leave a Reply