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MATHEMATICS AND Moby-Dick

I’VE MET SEVERAL world-famous mathematicians, including Lotfi Zadeh, 1921–2017, the discoverer of fuzzy logic. And my life has also been enriched by learning from those I’ve not had opportunity to meet. Several have appeared here at SimanaitisSays, including Maryam Mirzakhani and Marina Ratner, Isadore Singer, Karen Uhlenbeck, and Cédric Villani. To this fine bunch of talented people I add Sarah Hart, the current holder of England’s oldest mathematics chair dating back to 1597.

Sarah B. Hart, professor of mathematics Birkbeck College, University of London; the Gresham Professor of Geometry and Other Mathematical Sciences, Gresham College, London; current President, British Society for the History of Mathematics; self-described “pathologically interested in everything.” Photo by Jane Stockdale. This and other images from The New York Times, March 6, 2021.

I learned about Dr. Hart from Siobhan Roberts’ “Triangulating Math, Mozart and ‘Moby-Dick’ ” appearing in The New York Times, March 6, 2021. Here are tidbits gleaned from Siobhan Roberts’ article, Professor Hart’s publications and videos, and my usual Internet sleuthing.

The Gresham Chair. The Gresham College website notes that in 1597 it “was founded in the former mansion of Sir Thomas Gresham, located where Tower 42 now stands on Bishopsgate. It was the first ‘university’ in England besides Oxford and Cambridge, making it London’s oldest higher education institution still in existence today.”

Gresham College, London, as it might have appeared in Samuel Pepys’s time.

The first Gresham Professor of Geometry was mathematician Henry Briggs, appointed in March 1596/7. He invented Briggsian (base-10) logarithms and also devised our familiar algorithm for long division. Another famed appointment was Robert Hooke (of Hooke’s Law), appointed March 20, 1664/1665.

A Calendar Tidbit: The dual years above are noted to accommodate Old Style and New Style dates. In September 1752, the Georgian calendar eliminated 11 days from the previously used Julian calendar. At the same time, the new year began on January 1, not Lady Day, March 25.

Professor Sarah Hart’s Lectures. Formally termed the Gresham Professorship in Geometry and Other Mathematical Sciences, its appointee presents 18 public lectures at Gresham College, six each year over three years. Professor Hart is the 33rd academic in the chair’s history, and the first woman so honored.

One of Hart’s Gresham lectures online.

“Ahab’s Arithmetic: The Mathematics of Moby-Dick is a Hart paper evolving from her Gresham lectures. In it, she observes, “… Melville was unusually sophisticated in his level of mathematical knowledge, and moreover that he evidently enjoyed mathematics and was good at it.”

Hart notes that after Melville’s poorly reviewed book Mardi, he “promised his publisher that his next book would contain ‘no metaphysics, no conic-sections, nothing but cakes & ale.’”

“…but by the time Moby-Dick came along,” Hart writes, “Melville had most assuredly reneged on his promise.”

A depiction of Moby-Dick, by Augustus Burnham Shute, from an 1892 edition of the novel.

Try Pots and the Cycloid. In The New York Times article, Siobhan Roberts writes, “Among all the literary works she [Professor Hart] considered for the Gresham lectures, her favorite is Moby-Dick. Melville’s choicest mathematical allusion is perhaps found in his description of the large whaling ‘try pots.’ The pots were so large, that sailors ‘coil themselves away there for a nap’ and they were also a nice place for ‘profound mathematical meditation.’ ” 

Nineteenth-century whalemen rendering oil from blubber in try pots.

Roberts continues: “As Ishmael observed, ‘It was in the left hand try-pot of the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me, that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same time.’ ”

Above, a cycloid is the curve created by a point on the edge of a rolling circle. Below, the time it takes to reach the bottom of an inverted cycloid is the same no matter where you start. Images by Sarah Hart, Gresham College.

Gee, and I thought Moby-Dick was a sea story about hunting this big white fish. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2021

3 comments on “MATHEMATICS AND Moby-Dick

  1. Bill
    March 12, 2021

    The cycloid is inextricably linked with the isochronism of pendula. Hooke was the first to study this, and discovered that the pendulum bob needed to follow the cycloid to be truly isochronous.

  2. sabresoftware
    March 12, 2021

    Fish ?

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