Looking to the light


One morning I was putting AJ in her carseat when our 5-year-old neighbor came out of the house next door. She waved and asked where we were going, and I told her we were going to a friend’s house for a playdate. She replied, “Now? In the middle of the night?” “It’s not night,” I said, “it’s almost ten in the morning.” She said, “But it’s still dark outside. Whenever I wake up and it’s still dark, my mom always says ‘go back to sleep! It’s not morning yet!’”

Some Alaska moms can get their kids to sleep until noon in the winter using that trick. Unfortunately, my daughter has an impeccable internal clock that wakes her up hours before light breaks the horizon, and she’s progressively waking up earlier and earlier.

Thankfully, so is the sun. Though it still rises at about the same time AJ takes her first nap, the increasing light already makes a big difference. Everything looks better from this side of the solstice.

Winter in interior Alaska lasts for almost three-quarters of the year, and in December we only get a very few short hours of sunlight. It would all be completely unbearable if it weren’t for one thing: seasonal temperature lag, the delay in the Earth’s surface temperature response to solar insolation. The warmest time of the year occurs after the peak of maximum solar insolation (summer solstice), and the coldest time of the year occurs after the time of lowest solar insolation (winter solstice). Temperature can lag insolation by up to three months, caused by the high specific heat of water in the oceans and atmosphere, which absorb incoming heat from the sun and release it slowly.

If there were no seasonal temperature lag, winter would be evenly split between either side of the solstice, and the darkest month of the year would also be the coldest. Our first four months of winter would be an agonizingly slow march towards ever-decreasing temperatures and light. By mid-winter, we would all be in a black hole of depression with nothing to look forward to because the second half of winter would be just as long and terrible as the first.

Thanks to temperature lag, two-thirds of the winter is spent in progressively increasing light, and the second half of winter has longer days than the first half. By the time we reach the coldest days of the year, the days are already longer than they were at the beginning of winter. And even though snow continues to linger long after spring equinox, summer’s constant daylight inches closer and heralds the warmth. Thank goodness for the specific heat of water.

Sluices of infinity

9780316187374_custom-a6979da2f8157e8aabbe3508f472c61072bcab8c-s6-c30I have many favorite books, but there are a very few books that echo my mind exactly—in its way of organization, if not in the content it possesses. I’ve found one such book in Thinking in Numbers, a collection of essays about math, by the savant and synesthete Daniel Tammet. If books have personalities, this book is definitely an INTP, which is why it is so kindred to me. Reading these essays helps me reorient my mind to itself and embrace my INTP-ness. Perhaps such kindred books help me remember what I am, as they are an echo of what I could be.

If reading a good book is usually like walking through a gallery of ideas and being introduced to them by the author, reading this book is a boat ride along a river of thought, completely effortless. Each essay carries me along a stream of ideas, carving the same path through the pages as it would in my mind—but with hidden dimensions, illuminated by a mind much more brilliant than mine. Each stream of ideas meanders smoothly, sometimes detouring into a whirlpool that causes a thought to spin around and around in my mind until it makes sense of me. And of course, because this book is an INTP, sometimes there is a jarring leap of ideas in an attempt at smooth transition that makes me wince with awkwardness. But even the awkwardness is of the same kind that I produce.

Each essay explicates a mathematical concept such as fractions or prime numbers, weaving it into a non-mathematical narrative so that they illuminate each other. My favorite essay so far is “The Admirable Number Pi,” which reveals the staggering beauty that I never knew was held in this infinite number.

Circles, perfect circles, thus enumerated, consist of every possible run of digits. Somewhere in pi, perhaps trillions and trillions of digits deep, a hundred successive fives rub shoulders; elsewhere occur a thousand alternating zeroes and ones. Inconceivably far inside the random-looking morass of digits, having computed them for a time far longer than that which separates us from the big bang, the sequence 123456789… repeats 123,456,789 times in a row. If only we could venture far enough along, we would find the number’s opening hundred, thousand, million, billion digits immaculately repeated, as though at any instant the whole vast array were to begin all over again. And yet, it never does. There is only one number pi, unrepeatable, indivisible.

In 2004 the author broke the record for memorizing the most digits of pi. Using his synesthetic ability to see order and meaning within the numbers, he recited pi to 22,514 decimal places.

In my mind, it is I, not the number, who grows small. I diminish myself as much as possible before the mystery of pi. Emptying myself, I perceive every digit up close. I do not wish to fragment the number; I am not interested in breaking it up. I am interested in the dialogue between its digits; in the unity and continuity that underlie them all.

A bell cannot tell time, but it can be moved in just such a way as to say twelve o’clock—similarly, a man cannot calculate infinite numbers, but he can be moved in just such a way as to say pi.