Suszynski: Ghost of departed quantities | VailDaily.com
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Suszynski: Ghost of departed quantities

For the past month, I have entered a somewhat lucid daze. As I write with only two days separating me from a turning point in the young life of the country I call home, this is the first time that I realize I am treading on my own history. Being cognizant of that fact has me reeling.

One of my favorite writers, Joan Didion, has comforted me this week. In “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” in an essay titled “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion introduces us to why keeping a notebook is important to understanding our past selves: “Since the note is in my notebook, it presumably has some meaning to me.”

Often, my notebook is filled with frazzled, “magpie” observances. I like to record times, things to look up later, the small gifts that my friends pass to me over the phone. Just this morning, one from my friend Erica living in Chile: “We voted to pass a new constitution.” And next to her words, me: “The fern is thirsty. 2:09 and the sun keeps hitting the gutter water. Ghost of departed quantities. Fluxions?”

Later after trying to unpack my notes, frustrated by my lack of understanding, I emailed my dad’s cousin Eric, who actually knows mathematical theory, to grasp the ghost of departed quantities. He told me that the basic concept is that Isaac Newton was trying to understand the relationship between position and velocity and acceleration (the apple falling off the tree).

Fluxion is the instantaneous rate of change. In 1734, George Berkeley attacked Newton’s ideas on Fluxions in his paper “The Analyst.” Berkeley asks: “And what are these Fluxions? The Velocities of evanescent Increments? And what are these same evanescent Increments? They are neither finite Quantities nor Quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we not call them the ghosts of departed quantities?”

Eric pointed out that Berkeley is pretty accurate considering limits (n/(n+1)). He said in his email to me: “So, as n gets very large, the difference gets very small. And at some point, it is so small it drifts away like a Ghost and the Quantity departs!”

I like this theory. As we near Tuesday, I feel as though the value n is growing larger and larger. The more frustrating observation is that n still remains an unnamable value to me, which means the difference is also unnamable and miniscule. And I grow angrier when all I get is a ghost with no quantity.

Didion writes: “I have no real business with what one stranger said to another at the hat-check… My stake is always of course, in the unmentioned girl in the plaid silk dress. Remember what it was to be me: that is always the point.”

For the first time in my life, I am witness to important events that are knocking on my front door. Remember what it is to be me. At this moment in time, it is me who is concerned with the fate of my dying fern. Remember what it is to be me. It is me concerned with the limit, and the approaching quantity that is neither finite nor infinitely small.   

Didion thoughtfully reflects: “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

There it is. A line that haunts me and will always haunt me: “to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” And who we used to be, who we will be, I believe, is also innately tied to the places we occupy. The little life of our country: We must keep on nodding terms with its spastic growth and gross pitfalls. We must observe the dank pit of despair that is injustice and the almost unbearable uplift of small kindnesses.

In all of the big events of my life, I have recorded where they happened. What time of day was it? What was I drinking? What piece of clothing was I wearing? In two days’ time, I will ask myself dutifully, in the year leading up to now, what was I doing? What did I do to fight? And in the days after, whether I am relieved or horribly sad, I can think back to what I did to get here. I can nod to myself, visit my past selves, visit my past country. Think: “I still see pieces of that fern on the carpet.” It’s still there. Residue of history. One hope: not to slouch toward Bethlehem but walk with straight back, head to that 2:09 sun.

If n= the sum of our efforts, then the bigger the sum, the more work we must do, even if we are approaching infinitesimally smaller values. The more differences we uncover, the smaller we go. When we approach the limit, at least we know the value of our contributions. If you did nothing, perhaps you have a more finite answer. If you did everything in your power, perhaps your value is a little more elusive, a little more mystical, a little closer to infinity.


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