JF Ptak Science Books Post 1703
Thinking big thoughts in dreams is generally not a common thing, as anyone who has read their own semi-conscious half-awake memory notes of a dream-based inspiration could attest. But it does happen:
Paul McCartney1 dreamed the song Yesterday, Gandhi dreamed the source of non-violent resistance, Elias Howe dreamed of the construction of the first sewing machine, and Mary Shelley the creation of her novel Frankenstein... For good or for ill, William Blake was evidently deeply influenced by his own dreams; on the other hand, Rene Magritte was deeply influenced by dreams but didn’t use any of his own for his paintings. Otto Loewi turned an old problem into not one in a dream, finding a solution to the prickish problem of whether nerve impulses were chemical or electrical (and resulting in the Nobel for medicine in 1935); the fabulous discovery of the benzene ring came to August Kekule in a dream as well. Artists have been representing people in dreams and dreamscapes for many centuries: Durer depicted a dream in a 1525 watercolor, for example, and thousands of artists have depicted famous biblical dreams (Joseph of Pharo) for long expanses of time.
What struck me, though, in this illustration found on the other side of the page of the Illustrirte Zeitung2 (for August 1932) that I used for yesterday’s post about damming Gibraltar and Shakespeare’s memories, was the depiction of someone dreaming mathematical thoughts…or at the very least, dreaming numbers. People have undoubtedly dreamed much in mathematics, but I can not recall seeing illustrations of these dreams.
I'm differentiating here from something like a Poincarean inspiration, or vision, or thunderstrike--I'm talking about drop-dead asleep sleep, dreaming sleep, REM and all that. Also I'm differentiating this from imaging mathematical thought, as in the work of Francis Galton in 1880 in which the subject of mentally seeing the process of mathematics is perhaps first addressed. I wrote a short piece on that here, way back in Post 9. )
The numerical sequence in this dream doesn’t look like anything to me: the backwards radicand doesn’t strike anything common in my head. The geometrical drawing under the portrait in the dreamer’s room though is the impossibly iconic Pythagorean theorem, and there is a nice picture of a conic section in the foreground; but the artist, who improbably signed the work “A. Christ”, doesn’t offer much of math in the dreamscape. Still, it is a rare depiction of someone dreaming about math.
1. "I woke up with a lovely tune in my head. I thought, 'That's great, I wonder what that is?' There was an upright piano next to me, to the right of the bed by the window. I got out of bed, sat at the piano, found G, found F sharp minor 7th -- and that leads you through then to B to E minor, and finally back to E. It all leads forward logically. I liked the melody a lot, but because I'd dreamed it, I couldn't believe I'd written it. I thought, 'No, I've never written anything like this before.' But I had the tune, which was the most magic thing!" from Barry Miles (1997), Paul McCartney.
2. this is really a great sheet of paper, coming from issue 4492, pp 518-519. Two pictures of dreams on one side, with three visionary images on the other (the Gibraltar dam, a sub-polar submarine, and a futuristic Indian railway/bridge.