Infinite Cities: Calvino and Chess

…trying to master chess is like trying to master the infinite, and the psychological consequences can be transcendent or terrifying.

I’ve been busy traveling lately, so, in lieu of a new post, I’m just giving you a couple of literary links today.

First, a piece at The Millions about depictions of chess in literature. Chess, like the infinite, is often depicted in the popular imagination as an object of obsession, a pursuit that can lead either to transcendence or madness. This is often a little overwrought, but certainly entertaining.

“Plunging Into the Infinite: How Literature Captures the Essence of Chess” by Matthew James Seidel

Next, at LitHub, a selection of artwork inspired by Italo Calvino’s wonderful Invisible Cities, a novel exploring the infinite permutability of the urban environment.

Art Inpired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities” by Emily Temple

Cover image: “Zenobia” by Maria Monsonet



Trying to make sense of it doesn’t make sense.

-Last Year at Marienbad

A spa town in the Czech Republic, Marienbad was a favored vacation spot of European royalty and celebrities during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some mathematicians came, too: Karl Weierstrass, Gösta Mittag-Leffler, and Sofia Kovalevskaya were all drawn by the combination of the restful atmosphere and sparkling social life that could be found at the spa.

Though its golden era ended in the early 20th century, Marienbad remained popular between the world wars. Among the visitors during that time was a young Kurt Gödel. According to some accounts, Gödel’s interest in the sciences was kindled by a teenage visit to Marienbad, during which he and his brother studied Goethe’s philosophical theory of color and found it lacking in comparison to Newton’s more strictly scientific account.

After the war we were in Marienbad quite often with my brother, and I remember that we once read Chamberlain’s biography of Goethe together. At several points, he took a special interest in Goethe’s theory of color, which also served as a source of his interest in the natural sciences. In any case, he preferred Newton’s analysis of the color spectrum to Goethe’s.

-Rudolf Gödel

Goethe himself was a frequent visitor to Marienbad. During an 1823 trip, the 73-year-old Goethe became infatuated with the 18-year-old Baroness Ulrike von Levetzow. The pain caused by her rejection of his marriage proposal led him to write the famous Marienbad Elegy (updated in 1999 by the great W.G. Sebald).

…who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad.

-Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel

In 1961, Last Year at Marienbad was released. Directed by Alain Resnais and written by Alain Robbe-Grillet, the film is as beautiful as it is inexplicable. On its face, the film is set at a resort hotel; an unnamed man (‘X’) becomes infatuated with an unnamed woman (‘A’) and attempts to convince her that they had an affair the previous year. The film unfolds in combinatorial play, with narration and scenes repeated in ever-evolving and bewildering variation.

A popular theory is that Last Year at Marienbad is actually an adaptation of Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel, a novel of which our friend Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” I will not say much about this, so as not to spoil the book (you should go read it right now), but will only mention that Morel was, in a way, an homage to Louise Brooks, a Hollywood actress with whom Casares was somewhat obsessed and whose performance in Pandora’s Box provided a model for Delphine Seyrig’s performance as ‘A’ in Marienbad. The idea that there is a direct line from Casares and Brooks to the main characters in Morel to ‘X’ and ‘A’ in Marienbad, and that the obscurities of both novel and film are at heart simply odes to the power of cinema is an appealing one.

This theory about the connection between Marienbad and Morel was never acknowledged by the filmmakers (some say that the source text for the film is not Casares’ novel, but rather Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations). Perhaps its fullest explication is given by this article in Senses of Cinema, in which the only sources given by the author are the dust jacket of a different Casares work and an Encyclopedia Britannica article which has since been removed from the online archives. Regardless of the theory’s truth, though, when one views the film through the lens of Morel, it comes tantalizingly close to making sense; the characters of the film lose their agency, consigned to repeating their roles ad infinitum.

At first sight, it seemed impossible to lose your way. At first sight…

Last Year at Marienbad

The third main character in Marienbad is ‘M’, a man who may or may not be the husband of ‘A’. Throughout the film, we see ‘M’ playing a version of the mathematical game of Nim with ‘X’.

This version of Nim became known by the name “Marienbad” and was a brief craze in certain circles. It even got written about in Time:

Last week the Marienbad game was popping up at cocktail parties (with colored toothpicks), on commuter trains (with paper matches), in offices (paper clips) and in bars (with swizzle sticks). Only two can play, but any number can kibitz — and everyone, it seems, has a system for duplicating “X’s” talent for winning.

-“Games: Two on a Match,” Time, Mar. 23, 1962

The game is a theoretical win for the second player, although, as it is unlikely that a player will stumble upon the winning strategy by accident, ‘X’ is able to win even as the first player. We will return to general winning strategies for Nim and other games in later posts.

-The one who starts, wins.

-You must take an even number.

-You must take the smallest odd number.

-It’s a logarithmic series.

-You must switch rows as you go.

-And divide by three.

-Seven times seven is forty-nine.

-kibitzers in Last Year at Marienbad

I leave you now with Nick Cave’s exquisite “Girl in Amber.” Another secret adaptation of The Invention of Morel? Possible…

The Simurgh (Universal Structures I)

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

-William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”

In Persian mythology, the Simurgh is a bird that lives in the mountains of Alborz. Sometimes she has the head or body of a dog, sometimes of a human. She has witnessed the destruction of the world three times. The wind of her beating wings is responsible for scattering seeds from the Tree of Life, creating all plants in the world.

The Simurgh is, in some tellings, the archetype of all birds. Her name resembles the Persian phrase si murg, meaning “thirty birds.”

In The Conference of the Birds, Farid ud-Din Attar’s 12th-century masterpiece, the birds of the world undertake a journey to find the Simurgh. And they succeed.

Their life came from that close, insistent sun
And in its vivid rays they shone as one.
There in the Simorgh’s radiant face they saw
Themselves, the Simorgh of the world – with awe
They gazed, and dared at last to comprehend
They were the Simorgh and the journey’s end.
They see the Simorgh – at themselves they stare,
And see a second Simorgh standing there;
They look at both and see the two are one,
That this is that, that this, the goal is won.

-Farid ud-Din Attar, The Conference of the Birds

The Simurgh is a bird that contains all birds. She is a universal bird.

Unsurprisingly, the Simurgh shows up a number of times in the works of Jorge Luis Borges, in both his short stories and his essays. One reference appears in the masterful story, “The Aleph,” a particularly rich and dense work which you should certainly read for yourself.

“The Aleph” is partly about how we create our own worlds, how we approximate the unknowable universe within our lives and our art. The narrator of the story, also named Borges, grieving the loss of his beloved Beatriz, pays repeated visits to the home of her father and her cousin, the poet Carlos Argentino Daneri. On one of these visits, Carlos Argentino takes Borges to his basement to show him the source of his poetry, the titular Aleph, a single point that contains the universe.

On the back part of the step, toward the right, I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance. At first I thought it was revolving; then I realised that this movement was an illusion created by the dizzying world it bounded. The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny — Philemon Holland’s — and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the colour of a rose in Bengal; I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon — the unimaginable universe.

-Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph”

Aleph (\aleph) is of course the letter chosen by Georg Cantor to represent transfinite cardinals and the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It plays a special role in Kabbalah as the first letter in “Ein Sof,” roughly translated as “infinity,” and in “Elohim,” one of the names of the Hebrew god. We will surely return to these matters.

This is the first installment in a mini-series on what we will call “universal structures,” objects that contain all other objects of their type. We will continue to look at examples from literature and religion, and will delve into the existence of universal structures in mathematics, a topic which continues to drive cutting-edge research to this day. Next week, we will look at a particular universal structure in mathematics, the wonderfully named “random graph.” I hope you will join us.

Dante, Einstein, and the Shape of the World

Last week, we began a series of posts dedicated to thinking about immortality. If we want to even pretend to think precisely about immortality, we will have to consider some fundamental questions. What does it mean to be immortal? What does it mean to live forever? Are these the same thing? And since immortality is inextricably tied up in one’s relationship with time, we must think about the nature of time itself. Is there a difference between external time and personal time? What is the shape of time? Is time linear? Circular? Finite? Infinite?

Of course, we exist not just across time but across space as well, so the same questions become relevant when asked about space. What is the shape of space? Is it finite? Infinite? It is not hard to see how this question would have a significant bearing on our thinking about immortality. In a finite universe (or, more precisely, a universe in which only finitely many different configurations of matter are possible), an immortal being would encounter the same situations over and over again, would think the same thoughts over and over again, would have the same conversations over and over again. Would such a life be desirable? (It is not clear that this repetition would be avoidable even in an infinite universe, but more on that later.)

Today, we are going to take a little historical detour to look at the shape of the universe, a trip that will take us from Ptolemy to Dante to Einstein, a trip that will uncover a remarkable confluence of poetry and physics.

One of the dominant cosmological views from ancient Greece and the Middle Ages was that of the Ptolemaic, or Aristotelian, universe. In this image of the world, Earth is the fixed, immobile center of the universe, surrounded by concentric, rotating spheres. The first seven of these spheres contain the seven “planets”: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Surrounding these spheres is a sphere containing the fixed stars. This is the outermost sphere visible from Earth, but there is still another sphere outside it: the Primum Mobile, or “Prime Mover,” which gives motion to all of the spheres inside it. (In some accounts the Primum Mobile is itself divided into three concentric spheres: the Crystalline Heaven, the First Moveable, and the Empyrean. In some other accounts, the Empyrean (higher heaven, which, in the Christianity of the Middle Ages, became the realm of God and the angels) exists outside of the Primum Mobile.)

An illustration of the Ptolemaic universe from The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge by Andrew Boorde (1542)

This account is naturally vulnerable to an obvious question, a question which, though not exactly in the context of Ptolemaic cosmology, occupied me as a child lying awake at night and was famously asked by Archytas of Tarentum, a Greek philosopher from the fifth century BC: If the universe has an edge (the edge of the outermost sphere, in the Ptolemaic account), then what lies beyond that edge? One could of course assert that the Empyrean exists as an infinite space outside of the Primum Mobile, but this would run into two objections in the intellectual climate of both ancient Greece and Europe of the Middle Ages: it would compromise the aesthetically pleasing geometric image of the universe as a finite sequence of nested spheres, and it would go against a strong antipathy towards the infinite. Archytas’ question went largely unaddressed for almost two millennia, until Dante Alighieri, in the Divine Comedy, proposed a novel and prescient solution.

Before we dig into Dante, a quick mathematical lesson on generalized spheres. For a natural number n, an n-sphere is an n-dimensional manifold (i.e. a space which, at every point, locally looks like n-dimensional real Euclidean space) that is most easily represented, embedded in n+1-dimensional space, as the set of all points at some fixed positive distance (the “radius” of the sphere) from a given “center point.”

Perhaps some examples will clarify this definition. Let us consider, for various values of n, the n-sphere defined as the set of points in (n+1)-dimensional Euclidean space at distance 1 from the origin (i.e. the point (0,0,…,0)).

If n=0, this is the set of real numbers whose distance from 0 is equal to 1, which is simply two points: 1 and -1.

If n=1, this is just the set of points (x,y) in the plane at a distance of 1 from (0,0). This is the circle, centered at the origin, with radius 1.

A 1-sphere

If n=2, this is the set of points (x,y,z) in 3-dimensional space at a distance 1 from the point (0,0,0). This is the surface of a ball of radius 1, and is precisely the space typically conjured by the word “sphere.”

A 2-sphere

0-, 1-, and 2-spheres are all familiar objects; beyond this, we lose some ability to visualize n-spheres due to the difficulty of considering more than three spatial dimensions, but there are useful ways to think about higher-dimensional spheres by analogy with the more tangible lower-dimensional ones. Let us try to use these ideas to get some understanding of the 3-sphere.

First, note that, for a natural number n, the non-trivial “cross-sections” of an n+1-sphere are themselves n-spheres! For example, if a 1-sphere (i.e. circle) is intersected with a 1-dimensional Euclidean space (a line) in a non-trivial way, the result is a 0-sphere (i.e. a pair of points). If a 2-sphere is intersected with a 2-dimensional Euclidean space (a plane) in a non-trivial way, the result is a 1-sphere (this is illustrated above in our picture of a 2-sphere). The same relationship holds for higher dimensional spheres: if a 3-sphere is intersected with a 3-dimensional Euclidean space in a non-trivial way, the result is a 2-sphere.

Suppose that you are a 2-dimensional person living in a 2-sphere universe. Let’s suppose, in fact, that you are living in the 2-sphere pictured above, with the 1-sphere “latitude lines” helpfully marked out for you. Let’s suppose that you begin at the “north pole” (i.e. the point at the top, in the center of the highest circle) and start moving in a fixed direction. At fixed intervals, you will encounter the 1-sphere latitude lines. For a while, these 1-spheres will be increasing in radius. This will make intuitive sense to you. You are moving “further out” in space; each successive circle “contains” the last and thus should be larger in radius. After you pass the “equator,” though, something curious starts happening. Even though you haven’t changed direction and still seem to be moving “further out,” the radii of the circles you encounter start shrinking. Eventually, you reach the “south pole.” You continue on your trip. The circles wax and wane in a now familiar way, and, finally, you return to where you started.

A similar story could be told about a 3-dimensional being exploring a 3-sphere. In fact, I think we could imagine this somewhat easily. Suppose that we in fact live in a 3-sphere. For illustration, let us place a “pole” of this 3-sphere at the center of the Earth. Now suppose that we, in some sort of tunnel-boring spaceship, begin at the center of the Earth and start moving in a fixed direction. For a while, we will encounter 2-sphere cross-sections of increasing radius. Of course, in the real world these are not explicitly marked (although, for a while, they can be nicely represented by the spherical layers of the Earth’s core and mantle, then the Earth’s surface, then the sphere marking the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere) but suppose that, in our imaginary world, someone has helpfully marked them. For a while, these successive 2-spheres have larger and larger radii, as is natural. Eventually, of course, they will start to shrink, contracting to a point before expanding and contracting as we return to our starting point at the Earth’s core.

Dante’s Divine Comedy, completed in 1320, is one of the great works of literature. In the first volume, Inferno, Dante is guided by Virgil through Hell, which exists inside the Earth, directly below Jerusalem (from where I happen to be writing this post). In the second volume, Purgatorio, Virgil leads Dante up Mount Purgatory, which is situated antipodally to Jerusalem and formed of the earth displaced by the creation of Hell. In the third volume, Paradiso, Dante swaps out Virgil for Beatrice and ascends from the peak of Mount Purgatory towards the heavens.

Dante’s universe. Image by Michelangelo Caetani.

Dante’s conception of the universe is largely Ptolemaic, and most of Paradiso is spent traveling outward through the larger and larger spheres encircling the Earth. In Canto 28, Dante reaches the Primum Mobile and turns his attention outward to what lies beyond it. We are finally in a position to receive an answer to Archytas’ question, and the answer that Dante comes up with is surprising and elegant.

The structure of the Empyrean, which lies outside the Primum Mobile, is in large part a mirror image of the structure of the Ptolemaic universe, a revelation that is foreshadowed in the opening stanzas of the canto:

When she who makes my mind imparadised
Had told me of the truth that goes against
The present life of miserable mortals —

As someone who can notice in a mirror
A candle’s flame when it is lit behind him
Before he has a sight or thought of it,

And turns around to see if what the mirror
Tells him is true, and sees that it agrees
With it as notes are sung to music’s measure —

Even so I acted, as I well remember,
While gazing into the bright eyes of beauty
With which Love wove the cord to capture me.

When Dante looks into the Empyrean, he sees a sequence of concentric spheres, centered around an impossibly bright and dense point of light, expanding to meet him at the edge of the Primum Mobile:

I saw a Point that radiated light
So sharply that the eyelids which it flares on
Must close because of its intensity.

Whatever star looks smallest from the earth
Would look more like a moon if placed beside it,
As star is set next to another star.

Perhaps as close a halo seems to circle
The starlight radiance that paints it there
Around the thickest mists surrounding it,

As close a ring of fire spun about
The Point so fast that it would have outstripped
The motion orbiting the world most swiftly.

And this sphere was encircled by another,
That by a third, and the third by a fourth,
The fourth by a fifth, the fifth then by a sixth.

The seventh followed, by now spread so wide
That the whole arc of Juno’s messenger
Would be too narrow to encompass it.

So too the eighth and ninth, and each of them
Revolved more slowly in proportion to
The number of turns distant from the center.

This seemingly obscure final detail, that the spheres of the Empyrean spin increasingly slowly as they increase in size, and in distance from the point of light, turns out to be important. Dante is initially confused because, in the part of the Ptolemaic universe from the Earth out to the Primum Mobile, the spheres spin faster the larger they are; the fact that this is different in the Empyrean seems to break the nice symmetry he observes. Beatrice has a ready explanation, though: the overarching rule governing the speed at which the heavenly spheres rotate is not based on their size, but rather on their distance from God.

This is a telling explanation and seems to confirm that the picture Dante is painting of the universe is precisely that of a 3-sphere, with Satan, at the center of the Earth, at one pole and God, in the point of light, at the other. If Dante continues his outward journey from the edge of the Primum Mobile, he will pass through the spheres of the Empyrean in order of decreasing size, arriving finally at God. Note that this matches precisely the description given above of what it would be like to travel in a 3-sphere. Dante even helpfully provides a fourth dimension into which his 3-sphere universe is embedded: not a spatial dimension, but a dimension corresponding to speed of rotation!

(For completeness, let me mention that the spheres of the Empyrean are, in order of decreasing size and hence increasing proximity to God: Angels, Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Virtues, Dominions, Thrones, Cherubim, and Seraphim.)

Dante’s ingenious description of a finite universe helped the Church to argue against the existence of the infinite in the physical world. Throughout the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment, this position was gradually eroded in favor an increasingly accepted picture of infinite, flat space. A new surprise awaited, though, in the twentieth century.

‘Paradiso II’; Dante and Beatrice in the sphere of the moon, with Beatrice explaining the nature of the heavens; illustration by Sandro Botticelli, circa 1490
Beatrice explaining the nature of the heavens to Dante. Drawing by Botticelli.

In 1917, Einstein revolutionized cosmology with the introduction of general relativity, which provided an explanation of gravity as arising from geometric properties of space and time. Central to the theory are what are now known as the Einstein Field Equations, a system of equations that describes how gravity interacts with the curvature of space and time caused by the presence of mass and energy. In the 1920s, an exact solution to the field equations, under the assumptions that the universe is homogeneous and isotropic (roughly, has laws that are independent of absolute position and orientation, respectively), was isolated. This solution is known as the Friedmann-Lemaître-Robertson-Walker metric, after the four scientists who (independently) derived and analyzed the solution, and is given by the equation,

ds^2 = -dt^2 + R^2(t)\left(\frac{dr^2}{1-kr^2} + r^2(d\theta^2 + \sin^2\theta d\phi^2)\right),

where k is a constant corresponding to the “curvature” of the universe. If k = 0, then the FLRW metric describes an infinite, “flat” Euclidean universe. If k < 0, then the metric describes an infinite, hyperbolic universe. If k>0, though, the metric describes a finite universe: a 3-sphere.

PS: Andrew Boorde, from whose book the above illustration of the Ptolemaic universe is taken, is a fascinating character. A young member of the Carthusian order, he was absolved from his vows in 1529, at the age of 39, as he was unable to adhere to the “rugorosite” of religion. He turned to medicine, and, in 1536, was sent by Thomas Cromwell on an expedition to determine foreign sentiment towards King Henry VIII. His travels took him throughout Europe and, eventually, to Jerusalem, and led to the writing of the Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge, perhaps the earliest European guidebook. Also attributed to him (likely without merit) is Scoggin’s Jests, Full of Witty Mirth and Pleasant Shifts, Done by him in France and Other Places, Being a Preservative against Melancholy, a book which, along with Boord himself, plays a key role in Nicola Barker’s excellent novel, Darkmans.

Further Reading:

Mark A. Peterson, “Dante and the 3-sphere,” American Journal of Physics, 1979.

Carlo Rovelli, “Some Considerations on Infinity in Physics,” and Anthony Aguirre, “Cosmological Intimations of Infinity,” both in Infinity: New Research Frontiers, edited by Michael Heller and W. Hugh Woodin.

Cover Image: Botticelli’s drawing of the Fixed Stars.