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Bloch explores intersection of math and literature

Professor of Mathematics William Goldbloom Bloch explores the intersection of math and literature in his recently released book The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges’ Library of Babel.

Bill Bloch"The Library of Babel", the best-known short story by Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, is only seven pages long. But Wheaton's Professor of Mathematics William Goldbloom Bloch has found the connection between the literature and mathematics so fascinating that he has written a 193-page book about it.

Bloch's The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel, recently published by Oxford University Press, analyzes the mathematical ideas embedded within the author's story--from combinatorics to information theory. "The Library of Babel" is about a vast library comprising small, densely packed hexagons, much like a beehive. They contain an unimaginable number of books, which make up the story's universe--a chaotic and enigmatic universe.

Beyond being a challenging but entertaining read, Bloch's book also showcases the significance of Wheaton's "Connections" curriculum. In fact, the Connections curriculum, which requires students to study subjects across disciplines, inspired Bloch to write the book. The first year he was teaching "The Edge of Reason," which connects to "Science Fiction," a literature course taught by Professor of English Michael Drout, "The Library of Babel" was assigned.

"Borges [1899-1986] has been one of my favorite writers since the mid-1980s," said Bloch. "As it turns out, he was a lover of math. He was not a mathematician by any stretch; I don't even know if he could solve easy math problems! But he read and reread sophisticated works by the likes of Bertrand Russell on the philosophy and nature of the deep ideas and paradoxes of math. And those ideas and paradoxes emerge in his stories.

"Borges's 'Library of Babel' is one story in particular. It embodies some ideas of combinatorics, which is the branch of mathematics that studies combinations of finite collections of objects. Borges played with the notion that a library might consist of books containing all possible combinations of letters. What would it be like, to be surrounded by books, many of which were mainly nonsense? What could one infer about such a universe from the torrents of random letter combinations? For example, does, 'aqopvnqrohadf jjkkaen' have a hidden meaning to uncover in an unknown language?"library-of-babel.jpg

So the story provided a perfect platform for Drout to talk about literature and meaning, and for Bloch to develop a lecture on the combinatorics in the story. At some point, he was telling Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Hector Medina about his lecture. Bloch excitedly explained that he had talked to students about how he had calculated the number of distinct books in 'The Library of Babel,' which is an incomprehensibly large number. During the exchange with Medina, Bloch realized that it would be "fun" to write a short paper for literary people.

The paper grew into the book. Bloch, who has published many papers but never a book until now, credits Connections for the inspiration. "Although it's an amazing story--a scant seven pages packed with iconic imagery and imbued with a piercing and wistful sense of humanity--I never dreamt I'd write a book about it. The project began as a short paper aimed at professors of literature who wanted to understand a facet of the story, and it grew and grew and grew."

During a sabbatical, via the generosity of the Tricia Arnold Faculty Fellowship, Bloch spent 10 days doing research in Buenos Aires, the place of Borges's birth and where he served as head librarian at the National Library of Argentina. "I got to see Borges's original books, hold them, and look at his notations in them," said Bloch. When he returned to Massachusetts he spent the next 12 weeks writing the book, which is filled with intriguing illustrations, philosophic and literary insights, mathematical equations, a glossary of terms, and text that bares Bloch's characteristically quirky wit.

The book clearly shows his passion for math, which he became drawn to early in life. "I was taking Calculus--a very theoretical version--and found that hours had slipped by in a joyous frenzy as I tried to prove silly little things about operations on the real numbers. I knew then I was not like others.

"I believe that there's a logical underpinning to the universe and that to understand it, I need to understand mathematics. For example, it's philosophically interesting that 2 + 2 should always equal 4: Math thereby partakes of a kind of timelessness and universality. I find it remarkable that what was true for Plato, Euclid and Hypatia is equally true for me and my students. This last aspect helps make mathematics a multi-thousand-year conversation, where the topic might change, but the words and their meanings of the words stay the same.

"It's easy to confuse mathematics with the dry mechanics of arithmetic, but at the college level and beyond, a mathematician acquires an aesthetic about the assemblage of ideas into logical proofs. A penetrating insight into the meaning of an idea, or the proof of a theorem, or the solution of problem is shot through with an almost palpable elegance. I suppose I'm saying that I'm a dilettante of a sort."

Right from start of The Unimaginable Mathematics of Borges' Library of Babel, Bloch lays out his goal of the book and the general audience for which it is intended: "I assume no special mathematical knowledge. I only ask that the reader trust that I am a tour guide through a labyrinth, like that marble pathway on the floor of the cathedral at Chartres, not the gatekeeper of a Stygian maze without center or exit. Beyond enhancing the story, the reader's reward will be an exposure to some intriguing and entrancing mathematical ideas."