Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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926 words
SHJ Issue 12
Spring 2015

Squaring the Circle with the Philosopher’s Stone: Divine Numbers

by Skip Eisiminger

Ten digits, steel bearings whose turns are caprice,
once fragmented Skip to grit in the grease,
yet he can’t pass a fence without counting the posts—
the number of things keeps him engrossed.
The Wordspinner

Driving up to Charlotte on the Interstate recently, I noticed several big green signs saying, “SPEED LIMIT 70; MINIMUM 45.” I’d been reading Nothing: From Absolute Zero to Cosmic Oblivion, so I was primed to think of another minimum speed: the point on nature’s speedometer at which all motion ceases. And if her thermometer ever reaches absolute zero, it will not just be cold, but very dark, quiet, and still indeed. But we shouldn’t reach that point for several billion years, and for some five billion, our sun will fuel us, so there’s plenty of time to find a haven in the multiverse.

Astrophysicists say our maximum speed is 186,282 miles per second. Though the tachyon may be an exception, the warp drive of Star Trek is probably a Trekkie fantasy. Thus, regardless of a conflagration’s size or intensity, no ember or photon may fly away from the hearth any faster than light does: seven and a half times around the Earth per second.

Now I’m confident some bureaucrat or highway engineer set those limits on I-85, but who or what set the two absolute speeds, and who enforces the limits? Though Friedrich Nietzsche reported God’s death in 1882, the creator’s limits endure. We may never know if there was a supernatural creator, but I’m fascinated by the existence of the limits. Would the universe be habitable without them? I know the Interstate wouldn’t; it’s barely habitable with them.

One mathematician friend tells me that all the problems I completed through pre-calculus were mere calculations, and calculating is to math, he says, as typing is to writing poetry. I once asked him to explain “squaring the circle,” but the answer wasn’t poetry. The old joke about two men boxing in a ring comes closer.

Perfectionists will quibble with my metaphoric methods, but for 99.9% of the circles most of us ever need to measure, A = πr2 will suffice. But for mathematicians, pi and the areas it helps to measure must be approximations due to the rounding off of pi’s last digit. Always hopeful of finding some pattern, mathletes have now drawn pi out 463 miles (10 digits to an inch), but the pattern is nowhere in sight. Random is the pattern. At some point, several million digits out, eight eights showed up, and many a geek’s heart did flutter, but they quickly realized that once every billion times or so, eight eights will be rolled. If you just knew when, you could clean up in Vegas.


After my return from Charlotte, I summoned a small symposium in my head. It’s a lot cheaper that way though not without headaches. My first guest was the American literary scholar Camille Paglia, who declared that the first word in her bible was “Nature.” She was alluding to John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word...and the Word was God.” Her “Nature,” however, is “chaotic” and “unpredictable,” but if chaos and chance reigned at the start, how does one explain the inherent order of nature’s ninety elements, every one of which was forged in that explosion of the primordial particle? What about those speed-temperature limits mentioned earlier? As I explained to Professor Paglia, my bible starts, “In the beginning were the Numbers.”

My second guest was the British philosopher David Hume who argued that one should not infer an architect based on the comfort of a single room in the mansion. Indeed, most of the universe is inhospitable to life as we know it. Yet, the Golden Ratio and those absolute limits already mentioned are just as valid on Mercury (average temperature 332°F) as they are on Pluto (average temperature -380°F). Moreover, the “architect” gave hydrogen the same atomic structure in our galaxy as he, she, or it gave it in every other.

My third guest was the German mathematician Albert Einstein, author of the following verses:

“Behind all agreement lies something amiss.
All seeming accord cloaks a lurking abyss.”

Yet elsewhere, this dark poet claimed to believe in “Spinoza’s God,” revealed in “the lawful harmony of the world....” As I told my guest, “lawful harmony” is exactly the lifeline I was reaching for to affirm my faith in Design, not to be confused with creation science.

The final guest was my father, a golf-obsessed engineer-mathemagician who believed to the day he died that a bogey must follow a birdie. His non-golfing son also believes that for all the “bogies” in nature, there’s a “birdie” down the fairway, for out of chaos, order eventually flows. I wish I could say that there’s a one-to-one relationship here, but there will be birds—mostly English sparrows, but a few scarlet tanagers and bluebirds as well.


I’m swimming in a cold, dark, entropic sea. My ship has sunk, and the rescue vessel has suffered a power failure. I sense lifelines are dangling about me, so I keep trying to reach one, and what I’ve tentatively grasped are the divine numbers: zero, absolute zero, the speed of light, superconductivity, the uncertainty principle, Planck’s constant and his temperature, Kepler’s Third Law, the Periodic Table, e, i, pi, the Pythagorean Theorem and those harmonic strings, prime numbers without end, and the Golden Ratio. Indeed, in solving for X, science and mathematics may have discovered, not invented, the Architect.


“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury