The Spooky Music of Numbers

By Stuart Mitchner

Princeton University Press celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2005, the same year that Peter Dougherty began his illustrious 12-year term as director and British singer songwriter Kate Bush recorded a love song about a man obsessed by “a complete infatuation with the calculation of Pi (π),” the mathematical truth that coincides with the March 14th birthday of Albert Einstein, Princeton’s most renowned citizen.

Bush’s song about a man who loves loves loves his numbers lends a retrospective allure to my mathematically embattled school days, especially when she croons — sensually, caressingly, deliciously — a series of nothing but numbers that become things of beauty as she makes love to “three one four one five nine two six five three five nine” and on into infinity. And when she imagines a “great big circle” of numbers surrounding her pi-infatuated lover, she could be describing the cover of Millions, Billions, Zillions: Defending Yourself in a World of Too Many Numbers, by Princeton professor of computer science Brian W. Kernighan, whose small but numerically mighty book landed on my desk recently along with The Discrete Charm of the Machine: Why the World Became Digital by his computer science colleague at Princeton Ken Steiglitz. Both books are, of course, from Princeton University Press, as is Daniel Kennefick’s No Shadow of a Doubt, timed for the 100th anniversary of the 1919 eclipse “that confirmed Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.” Although Kennefick is a physics professor at the University of Arkansas, he qualifies as a local, his previous books, all about Einstein, having been published by Princeton.

Numbers and Baseball

For some time now these three books have been staring at me and I’ve been staring at them, wondering Why? Why send books of this caliber to a D student in math who barely squeaked by in junior high science? It all began to make some kind of subliminal sense when I read Louis Menand’s piece in The New Yorker about another new Princeton University Press book, Christopher Phillips’s Scouting and Scoring: How We Know What We Know About Baseball.

It’s like a mundane variation on Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” that even as I’m enmeshed in the why-me enigma of the other books, the one volume that Princeton had to be asked to send me for review is about one of the absolutes of my life. Not only is another baseball season underway, giving life another much-needed dimension of meaning, this is the very sport that revealed the beauty of numbers to me at a time when I was struggling with simple math. Here were numbers even more alluring than comely Kate could make them, numbers you could feel the weight of, hold in your metaphorical hand, like, say, a batting average of .376, 39 home runs, 131 runs batted in, 135 runs scored, 230 hits, 46 doubles, and 18 triples, all produced in the summer of 1948 by a Polish American named Stan Musial who wore the number 6 on his back. But Toto, I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Missouri any more, for, as Menand points out, what used to be called scoring is now known as “data capture,” wherein a player’s score is computed in categories like WAR (wins above replacement), FIP (fielding independent pitching), WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), wOBA (weighted on-base average), and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging). To Menand, “quantifying a player’s production in this way allows him to be compared numerically with other available players and assigned a dollar value.” Where’s the poetry in terms like that? Where’s the edge? When Ted Williams and Stan Musial scored $100,000 contracts, it was big news, but it had nothing to do with data capture. It was value above and beyond computing, and it mattered very much to the hometown fans in Boston and St. Louis that both players spent their careers with one team.

Menand sees Scouting and Scoring as “an effort to help us understand one of the oldest problems in modern societies, which is how to evaluate human beings.” He also finds the book “appropriate to our more chastened post-recession moment, when social confidence in Big Tech is going through a rough patch.” It’s a reminder “that algorithms and machine intelligence are only extensions of the men and women who create them, and that there is no substitute for human judgments based on experience with actual people. Scorer types aren’t interested in history; Phillips tries to show us that knowing the past can help us grasp what’s at stake in the choices we make in the present.”

Rated for Readability

Reviewers of Millions, Billions, Zillions; The Discrete Charm of the Machine; and No Shadow of a Doubt give the authors high marks for readability. Kernighan’s tone “is more that of a mellow friend breaking down a concept that flummoxes you rather than an Ivy League professor expounding on the elegance of numbers” (NJ.com); Steiglitz describes in “witty and cogent language” the “nuts and bolts” of “something analog, such as waves traveling through the air that make sound” (Scientific American); and Kennefick “addresses with exquisite clarity foundational issues in physics, astronomy, technology, and the history and philosophy of science” (The Einstein Papers Project).

Forgery, India, Celebrity
New releases from Princeton in other areas include works by two Princeton history professors. Anthony Grafton’s Forgers and Critics is “a learned, insightful, and most entertaining introduction” to “this fascinating and controversial aspect of the history of scholarship” (Renaissance Quarterly). In Emergency Chronicles, Indira Gandi and Democracy’s Turning Point, Gyan Prakash “argues forcefully that this was no momentary distortion in India’s democratic record or a nightmare that came from nowhere” (India Today). Columbia professor of English and comparative literature Sharon Marcus’s The Drama of Celebrity is “a field-defining and compellingly readable book,” according to Joseph Roach, author of The Player’s Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting.

If Black Holes Can Sing

According to the online Kate Bush Encyclopedia, she actually sings the number pi to its 78th decimal place, then from its 101st to its 137th decimal place. Since my ears are still sometimes ringing with the dismal school-day dissonance of decimals, I don’t want to think about whether or not that makes sense, but I trust Kate’s genius for the erotic and the exact, and she is a genius, nothing less. In 2005 when Aerial, the double album containing “Pi,” came out, she told a BBC interviewer about “trying to sort of, put an emotional element into singing about…a seven…you know and you really care about that nine.” She also finds it fascinating that there are people who actually spend their lives trying to formulate pi; she loves the idea of something that will go on to infinity with people “trying to pin it down and put their mark on and make it theirs.”

So it’s easy to imagine that when Kate Bush sees the first photograph of the black hole, she’ll cackle with delight, the way she does on Aerial’s symphonic second side, and go straight to the piano. And why not? According to the New York Times story that broke the news on April 11, “Black holes can sing.” That might sound like a challenge, but if anyone could meet it, Kate can. She has the range.