The other day I pulled out some old notebooks, scrawlings
I'd made while trying to make sense of my graduate Matrix Analysis course. I was looking for some ideas on generalized notions of an angle between two vectors in
n-space, but that's not the important part – I know that makes most people want to chew their own arms off
(and we'll get into that later), but the imporant thing,
the thing I noticed was something else: these notes are themselves a different kind of matrix, holding not only
numbers and symbols but an array of experiences that I'd
I remember a day when we were plodding along through
class, at a point where the air got heavy with eigenvalues and greek letters and the drone of the lecture, and then all of the sudden it was there: something the
professor called, in all seriousness, the "Red Heifer Matrix." The name seemed to be more Gary Larson or Garrison Keillor
than Grad work. After the initial outburst of laughter, Dr.
Robinson, bemused at our mirth, expounded briefly on its mysterious nature, making several beginnings at trying to explain its various characteristics, before stopping short at each one, as if knowing we probably wouldn't understand. Turning my imagination over to the enigmatic name, I began to picture it being found by detectives, marking a series of mysterious crime scenes. My classmate Calvin expanded on this, envisioning it as the mark of a Pynchon-esqe conspiracy or cult. "The Red Heifer," he said, shaking his head, speaking low, "you don't ask when you see that, you just walk away. You don't want to know."
Around the same time, one of my classmates – I can't remember who, it may have been Calvin, or perhaps my friend Bruce – related a dream. "We were all in advanced analysis or something. We'd been working on a proof in class for a week, and we'd reached an impasse, an impossible stage, and in the dream logic, the only way we were going to be able to progress was if (and only if) someone cut off their arm: the requirement was 'proof by mutilation.' And the scary thing was, we were going to do it, there was no question or discussion about that, the only thing we hadn't settled yet was whose arm we were going to use." We laughed, over and over, about that one. We pictured the student, deprived of his arm, as perhaps another victim of the mysterious Cult of the Red Heifer. Or perhaps no mere victim, but a candidate for a future High Priest, or at least, a Mascot and Talisman, as survivors of scarring rituals sometimes become. The story is fun to spin, the dream was funny in a macabre way, but it came out of an underlying (if less literally violent) reality. Jung would have had a field day.
Because along with the thrill of the problem solving, the intellectual and abstract detective work, the sense of magic and mystery that could sometimes hardly have been more palpable if our homework had been called "Harry Potter and the Ovals of Cassinni" instead of "Section 5.2.11"; along with the fun of seriously uttering phrases like "Equlibrated Convex Body" (and really, it's fun to say, almost as much as "Wingardium Leviosa," just try it a few times) – along with all this there was a sense that some of the more dense and impenetrable matters only went to those who were unusually bright, and those who sacrificed enough daylight and attention to normal human matters that they may indeed have lost something as fundamental as an arm. The dream of proof-by-mutilation was an archetype out of the collective unconsciousness of mathematics students, both those of us who sometimes drew back when that kind of devotion was demanded, and those who stepped forward and left blood along with chalk on the blackboard when the Cult of the Red Heifer called.