Countable Infinities (#rhizo15)

Close to Infinity

Still thinking about Dave’s #rhizo15 “What Should We Count?” post. Wrote and discarded a long post analogizing “learning” and “baking”—both non-count nouns that nonetheless involve many countable things—and poking at educators (not Dave) and institutions that conflate measurement with assessment. Once I began meandering about beginners vs. experts and art vs. craft and how those countable, measurable things do often, at those usually earlier stages, amount to assessment, I knew I’d gone off the rails.

The very idea of “counting” is problematic in my head right now thanks to delving into a book about infinity that includes the idea of countable and non-countable infinities. Somehow, it seems to me that learning is a non-countable infinity and the things we do as learners are countable infinities…but both involve a lot that is beyond our grasp and perception in ways that matter and very much do not (does the depth of the deep matter if you win a medal in the breaststroke? If you drown?).

Normally at this point I’d turns to Whitman’s “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”, which conveys more about this topic in a handful of lines than acres of my blog posts.

Or I could go simple with Hamlet’s ordinal dizziness (I will, someday, use part of this as the title for a paper or conference presentation):

“O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; / I have not art to reckon my groans”

But, perhaps, finally, a bit of Carl Sandburg is more appropriate:

“Number Man”

(for the ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach)

He was born to wonder about numbers.

He balanced fives against tens
and made them sleep together
and love each other.

He took sixes and sevens
and set them wrangling and fighting
over raw bones.

He woke up twos and fours
out of baby sleep
and touched them back to sleep.

He managed eights and nines,
gave them prophet beards,
marched them into mists and mountains.

He added all the numbers he knew,
multiplied them by new-found numbers
and called it a prayer of Numbers.

For each of a million cipher silences
he dug up a mate number
for a candle light in the dark.

He knew love numbers, luck numbers,
how the sea and the stars
are made and held by numbers.

He died from the wonder of numbering.
He said good-by as if good-by is a number.

—Carl Sandburg

Leave a Reply