The beauty of math through the eyes of SFU’s Peter Dickinson

The concept of writing a play that is about math might seem odd to some, but for SFU professor Peter Dickinson (pictured) it is par for the course. His latest play Long Division came out of one of his previous works The Objecthood of Chairs.

You may not think to look at the circumstances that bring people together as a mathematical equation, but Peter Dickinson, SFU professor in the department of English and the School for the Contemporary Arts, has written a play in which love is looked at through the language of math.

The impetus for Long Division comes out of one of his previous plays, The Objecthood of Chairs. “It’s about a relationship between two men, told through chair design,” said Dickinson. One of those men, Paul, is a high school math teacher. Dickinson wanted to explore this character further, along with six others, and use mathematical concepts to explain the way all of the characters come to be aligned. “The story unfolds as a mathematical equation,” he explained.  

The play begins with the language of a word problem that you might find on a standardized test — figuring out who will arrive first with different people using different modes of transportation. This is how the characters come to meet up at a bar, and the story maps out their relationships mathematically.

“I tried to strike a balance between mathematical language and a lot of mathematical references while explaining it in a human way that people can understand,” explained Dickinson. “There is a way in for specialists and others to appreciate it too; I’m playing with mathematical concepts but trying not to make it too complex.”

For example, set theory is explained using cliques in a high school, and various concepts such as the number zero, infinity, and the Fibonacci sequence are referenced. The science of patterns, and how they relate to the characters and the events that connect them, all form the basis of the play.

The story is set in the school where Paul teaches, and the other characters include parents, students, the school’s principal, a bar owner, and an Imam who uses the gym at the school. “I wanted to balance sharing who they are as individuals, through monologues, with the larger story as well,” said Dickinson. He can’t say much more about the plot, though, or it would give away the way everything coalesces at the end.

The theme of finding beauty in mathematics through things such as structural elegance and the golden ratio is inspired by a quote from mathematician G. H. Hardy: “Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.”

According to Dickinson, math can be beautiful, and it can also be comforting. “You can count on numbers and count with numbers,” he said. They are reliable, unlike people, but we also have to learn to be comfortable in a space where there is uncertainty and we don’t know the answers.

“Infinity can be overwhelming,” said Dickinson. Some concepts are hard to wrap our heads around if we think about them too much. “We become intimately connected through chance events,” explained Dickinson. “There are only small spaces between us, and we’re only particles colliding into each other.”

The show also includes some elements of physical theatre, with choreography by Lesley Telford. Telford worked with director Richard Wolfe to find moments when choreographed movement could enhance the story. “The movement often shows us the psychological state of the characters during their monologues,” said Dickinson.

“I hope people leave the theatre thinking a bit more about random connections, and making something out of nothing,” said Dickinson. “These are just questions I’m asking the audience to ruminate on.”

Long Division will be presented by Pi Theatre from November 17 to 26 at Gateway Theatre. For more information, visit the theatre’s website.