**The shape
of
the universe
**

CALCULATORS
have made life easier for those of us poor at mental arithmetic. For all that, I
occasionally feel nostalgic for fractions: they had a clarity that decimals can
never share (I speak as a non.mathematician). They made sense of division,
always the most difficult of the four operations.

They
were also crucial to those (hypothetical) calculations one could perform using
the tables in the front of the Prayer Book. The idea that any person could
calculate the date of Easter, and from that all the other moveable feasts of the
Christian year, from now until the year 8500, (and indeed beyond if one follows
the implications of the enigmatic ‘&c’) used to fascinate me as a child.

Why
was such information given in *every *copy of the BCP, and what theological
purpose did it serve? No vicar ever gave us any instruction, as I remember But
what such numerical tables did offer was a sense of the solidity of numbers.
Fractions only underlined that impression of numbers as objects. Like apples
they could be divided in half, then half again, and so on.

Numbers
are things. Or at least they were before calculators took them out of our hands.
Now we have to turn back to solid geometry, like the ancient Greeks, when
looking for the language of God and his creation. Precisely because this *seems
*easier to imagine, it is more of a snare for the non-specialist.

You
may have read that the torus is the in-shape among mathematicians just at
present; it is (apparently) the most productive piece of abstract geometry. This
wealth of technical research is then simplified, in the media, to the suggestion
that the universe is shaped like a bagel (the popular synonym for a torus). Take
it down to two dimensions, and it becomes a circle within a circle. Now expand
this back into multidimensional space, and you are in business. It is *almost *imaginable.

This
must be wrong. It cannot possibly be this easy to imagine the ‘shape’ of the
universe. Numbers, unlike shapes, are more demanding, and hence more valuable.
They require work; they cannot merely be looked at. Numbers, with their
fractions, keep a lid on imagination. And moderate our*NT
*

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