Archive for December, 2021

The calculus of dissolution

Anyone who knows much of anything about the history of mathematics knows the name Cantor. He was one of the math geniuses of all time. Being neither a math genius nor a math competent, I couldn’t tell you precisely what he accomplished, what he was most noted for, what difference he made in the intellectual world.

So I’m talking about a different Cantor, who taught me calculus, who… I barely know what to say. One of the 2 or 3 best teachers I’ve ever been exposed to, and one of the most sad, most riddled people I’ve known.

While looking into the background of my friend Dave Liberman (who died way, way too early), I stumbled over a site listing the prizewinners for best freshman math paper presented at UPenn. Not surprisingly, Dave (first  in his class the year he graduated) had won in 1960. I also noticed that five years previously, that freshman prize had been shared by Robert Cantor. 

In the summer of 1964, at Penn, a year after I’d snuck back from a disastrous term studying truly dumb shit in grad school communications at Stanford, I steamrollered through organic chem, elementary biochemistry and calculus.

That first summer semester, it was my enormous good fortune to have Cantor as grad-student instructor. Scrawny, obviously shy, he stood at the front of the room in rolled-up shirt sleeves, a 3×5 notebook cupped in his hand throughout each session. He wrote equations on the board, copying from the tiny booklet, then asked for student questions, which he answered in specific, evolving detail. If the student remained perplexed, Cantor would provide yet more detail. I never saw him leave a student without a complete, convincing answer to a question.

At the end of his thoroughgoing course, he gave a five-hour final exam – using the exam as yet another vehicle for instruction. The next day, he held an optional meeting to discuss the exam in detail – what it was doing, what it was intended to do – what it taught. At least 90% of the class showed up for the review.

The course was an illuminating educational experience, exactly what learning should be about.

The Penn math department at the time was known for using its grad students like chattel, cleaning up research for the mahoffs who refused to release them to finish their degrees. So, assuming Cantor got his undergrad degree in ’58, he’d been tunneling through the department for at least 6 years by the time I took his course.

Two years later, he left home with a note paper-clipped to his shirt pocket that read, “I am not who I am.” He walked into the Penn math department where he shot two of the profs and himself. He and one of the profs died.

Such things are all too common these days. They weren’t then.

Cantor was not a madman. He was a dedicated, caring, downtrodden human being. Once, while I was working at the Penn bookstore, he stopped in to buy a newspaper. I said Hello. It was like offering a piece of bread to a deer. He barely knew how to respond.

I should at least have asked him how things were going for him. I’m sure it would not have changed any future outcome, but I missed a chance to thoroughly acknowledge a human being I admired, and who probably never fully realized his own worth.

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When solidity was not treasured

Screenplay: Tentative title : “The End”

Opens with the world in disintegration (in other words, the world of today): climate decimation, wildfires, floods, pan-academics, cows farting methane, Brazillians whacking down trees, the US run in dictatorship by Stump, England slavering over Clown Johnson, Bangladeshis three-feet under water, reindeer eating plastic, plastic eating reindeer.

Noble underground scientist outcasts (1/2 women, 1/3 minorities) battle heroically to stem the tide of destruction as eruptions of pus and putrescence foul them.

The chaos is quelled, the traumatized two-year-old snuggles to her mother’s soot-stained breast.

As the John Williams soundtrack swells and quivers, the reformed teenage badass son points to the sky: “What’s that?’

The heroic father: “Not… the asteroid?”

All: “Oh fuck!”

*    *    *    *

A song for those who prefer 18th century chemistry

Phlo gently, sweet giston,

Flow out of this log.

For 2000 years

You lay dead in a bog.

But now I’ve set fire,

To both our delight.

Flow gently sweet gi-i-i-iston,

Burn into the night.

*    *    *    *

Nordic limerick

There was an old man of Gdansk,

Who stumbled around in a dance.

He said with a quaver,

“I ask you this favor,

“Drop no fire ants down my pants.”

*    *    *    *

Two men sat on a log. There was room for a third, but he had gone into town to purchase beer.

“This is a good, solid log,” said the first man.

“Ay-up,” said the second.

“Do you think there are many logs this good and solid?”


“Do you think, if we piled them all high enough, we could reach heaven?”


“What time is it?”

“How the fuck would I know?”

The third man returned with two sick-packs of an unknown IPA. None of them liked it.

*    *    *    *

Socrates’ butt itched.

“What the matter?” asked Plato.

“My butt itches,” said Socrates.

“Ah,” said Plato.

*    *    *    *

Thomas prodded the Lord’s side: 

“Why 12 apostles?”

“What d’ya mean?”

“Why not 15?”

“That’s not an even number.”

“It’s not even a number?”

“No, you dickhead, it’s not divisible by two.”

“Most things aren’t, unless you have a great big sword.”

“Has anyone told you how dumb you are?”


“Manny? Manny who?”

It went on that way for awhile.

*    *    *    *

An ancient man sat under a tree and wondered in what year he had been born. He was old enough that he had forgotten his childhood, then his middle age, then his later years, and now, yesterday. He leaned against the tree trunk and thought, but nothing significant transpired.

A squirrel chittered down the tree and sat on his belt buckle. It looked up at the old man and felt a deep, harrowing sadness. What does a squirrel need of sadness? It wasn’t a need, it was a calling.

The ancient man looked at the squirrel, wondering at first why it was there, then retrieving a memory. “I’ve met you before,” he said.

“No,” said the squirrel, “but possibly one of my ancestors.”

“I’ve never met my ancestors,” said the old man, “except my parents. I suppose they are ancestors, of a sort.”

The squirrel clawed his way up the man’s shirt. “No man, no woman, no human, has ever mated with a squirrel.”

The man laughed. “Can you say this with certainty?”

“I can say nothing with certainty.”

The man gave the squirrel a pistachio from his pocket and set out again on the trail.

“Tomorrow,” he said to the hemlock branches, “tomorrow I will have the answer.”

*    *    *    *

How many piglets will fit in a wormhole?

“It depends,”said Stephen Hawking while being fed a croissant, “where the wormhole exits.”

*    *    *    *

Leonardo da Vinci was cleaning the spaces between his toes with a small twig. On the hillside across from him fed a flock of… what? Sheep? His tired eyes could not focus. Goats?

He put down the twig and stood to investigate. A loud noise came from the direction he had just left. An animal? No, a machine of his own invention. The sound had not existed in all the world until he had made the machine in his mind and then transferred it to paper. “Well!” he said, with enthusiasm, but not pride. His inventions would never be, so it was said, merely extrapolations.

He trod across the road. He had neglected to return his sandals to his feet but was unconcerned. 

“If there was a way,” he considered, “if there was a way…”

But of course there wasn’t.

There were neither sheep nor goats, but a tiny, withered man in a shambled riding coat. Leonardo considered the man, the coat, the hillside, the circumstance.

He went home to paint.

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Self lies

How weird to be 82 years old and suddenly (that’s stupid, nothing is “sudden” at 82) to realize you’ve found something that you should have known years back. More than years: from the beginning.

I don/t know what that thing is. Maybe it’s honesty. I’ve pretended to be honest most of my life, but that’s the biggest lie. What I thought was honesty was a sideways shift of pretend. So it may be something else, but it’s something open, inviting. From someone who has seldom been inviting.

So what does such crap mean? As usual, I don’t know. Been listening tonight to hours of Lucinda Williams (do you know her? she’s country, not what you might think of as country, in the sense of blanded-out emotion strung on a telephone wire; no, she does it, the real honesty).

I’m sitting here at the uncaring computer, typing, knowing in my scattered mind that what I tap out will never be the same as tapping at that Olympia typewriter in the ‘70s, when I typed and the machine answered with its clicks (computers don’t answer, they lie silent or snicker).

I seldom admit this,

especially now, but I want to do something monumental. I mean, something so enormous that it will never be forgotten. This is particularly unsubstantiatable because I believe that a) I’m too limited to do it, or b) it doesn’t matter, or c) there’s nothing monumental in the universe, or d) (most likely) that life is a lie that can’t be particulated into a breakdown that tells us what matters and what doesn’t.

Tomorrow morning I’ll likely (almost certainly) wake with mental pain – the certainty that if I don’t get up I’ll lie there and suffer paralyzing negativity without reason, but if I do get up it will be just another day that will flop along with nothing to distinguish it – or worse, that distinguishing means nothing.

Oh, that’s not as negative as it sounds (is it?), just that the world’s flowing like a malignant plasma down humanity’s last-possible mountainside. We’re not at the bottom, no – we’re our own chosen obliteration.

Too often I think that’s exactly what it should be. (Oh, I’m a bad person. Or one too realistic to be here.)

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