Loyola University Chicago

Mathematics and Statistics


Literary Takes on Mathematical Intuition

Literary Takes on Mathematical Intuition

In the very excellent (stats centric) blog Quomodocumque, we find a nice quotation from David Foster Wallace about mathematical intuition, which he compares to James Joyce’s heady notion of epiphany. 

DFW, interview with Larry McCaffrey:

Wienieish or not, I was actually chasing a special sort of buzz, a special moment that comes sometimes. One teacher called these moments “mathematical experiences.” What I didn’t know then was that a mathematical experience was aesthetic in nature, an epiphany in Joyce’s original sense. These moments appeared in proof-completions, or maybe algorithms. Or like a gorgeously simple solution to a problem you suddenly see after half a notebook with gnarly attempted solutions. It was really an experience of what I think Yeats called “the click of a well-made box.” Something like that. The word I always think of it as is “click.”


Let us take this opportunity to record some other favorite literary views of our fair science.


Robert Musil, from The Man Without Qualities, Volume 1, Book 28:

“…the solution of an intellectual problem comes about in a way not very different from what happens when a dog carrying a stick in its mouth tries to get through a narrow door: it will go on turning its head left and right until the stick slips through…And of course though a head with brains in it has far more skill and experience in these turnings and twistings than an empty one, yet even for it the slipping through comes as a surprise, is something that just suddenly happens.”

Paul Valéry, from Monsieur Teste:

“The idea, the principle, the flash, the first moment of the first condition, the leap, the jump out of series…To others, the preparation and execution. Cast your net here. This is the place in the sea where you will make your catch. Farewell.”