believe in Indiana Jones. Not necessarily the swashbuckler who raided the Lost Ark of the Covenant; not necessarily the hellcat who stormed the Temple of Doom, nor the gallant knight who fought the Last Crusade. Probably not the grim cold warrior in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, either.
I believe I’m more sympathetic to the tweedy, bespectacled professor of archaeology teaching at a small liberal arts college in Anytown, USA. The Indiana Jones who advocates that research in the library is a thing wonderful in itself, and vital as a preparation to any kind of meaningful fieldwork.
I believe in him as someone who is an experiential learner, who impeccably prepares his lectures, has great board work, and is able to make easy connections with his class; a professor who shares his love of the subject as he endeavors to ignite a similar love in his students.
I believe in him as he uses his intellect and book learning to conjure up models of the possible that serve as signposts pointing toward the entranceways for his explorations of mundane and greater realities.
I believe in his knowledge of dead and living languages, his ability to decrypt arcane symbols, and his keen analytic sensibilities, which all serve him well in his urgent quests to solve prickly problems that often end up bearing on the geopolitical tensions of the day; his passion to know, to understand, which drives him to contemplate the uncontemplatable and allows him—paradoxically—to remain calm in the face of adversity, danger, betrayal and crushing disappointment; his resilience, which impels him, after defeat, to rebound and try, try, try, try and try again; his inner compass, which draws him inexorably toward microscopic flecks of light in a world gone dark, until the light grows and grows; his mental agility and acuity, which allow him to think creatively around any obstacle and get there ahead of a pack of pursuers, or even an equally wily competitor who is desperate to beat him; his years of training and dedication, which have whip-wired him to react rightly and righteously in the haze of ambiguity and the fogs of unreason; his faith in himself, and his faith in the path that he’s following toward its end.
Finally, I believe in his willingness to accept—and his humility when it comes—the flooding sense of something so much greater than his mere mortal self; his touching of the supernatural.
I believe in Indiana Jones because in all these things he is exactly a mathematician. Yes, perhaps, he is an incredibly handsome mathematician who’s handy with his fists, whips and guns. Yet he is still a mathematician like any other: He has honed himself to employ all of his capabilities in his efforts to confront the unknown x, the understructure of the universe, and try, try, try, try and try again to figure it out and understand what lies beneath. Distracting limitations of the natural and intimations of evil be damned, signs of eternity and infinity abounding urge him forward until he has solved his problem, and often bigger problems, too.
Sure, he’s an archaeologist in the movies, because the films need him to explore the outer space of the world. But all those traits of his that I believe in are what make me a mathematician, and a mathematician’s explorations of inner space, imaginary spaces, possible spaces, and impossible spaces are greater adventures than his—even if just a tad less cinematic.
This I believe: Indiana Jones is a noble and (mostly) accurate model of the mathematicians and scientists who grapple daily with Truth and Hidden Treasures of Reality.
Illustration / David Laferriere