Geometry of Grief
Reflections on Mathematics, Loss, and Life
by Michael Frame
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Pub Date 08 Sep 2021 | Archive Date 01 Sep 2021
We all know the euphoria of intellectual epiphany—the thrill of sudden understanding. But coupled with that excitement is a sense of loss: a moment of epiphany can never be repeated. In Geometry of Grief, mathematician Michael Frame draws on a career’s worth of insight—including his work with pioneer of fractal geometry Benoit Mandelbrot—and a gift for rendering the complex accessible as he delves into this twinning of understanding and loss. Grief, Frame reveals, can be a moment of possibility.
Frame investigates grief as a response to an irrevocable change in circumstance. This reframing allows us to see parallels between the loss of a loved one or a career and the loss of the elation of first understanding a tricky concept. From this foundation, Frame builds a geometric model of mental states. An object that is fractal, for example, has symmetry of magnification: magnify a picture of a mountain or a fern leaf—both fractal—and we see echoes of the original shape. Similarly, nested inside great loss are smaller losses. By manipulating this geometry, Frame shows us, we may be able to redirect our thinking in ways that help reduce our pain. Small‐scale losses, in essence, provide laboratories to learn how to meet large-scale losses.
Interweaving original illustrations, clear introductions to advanced topics in geometry, and wisdom gleaned from his own experience with illness and others’ remarkable responses to devastating loss, Frame’s poetic book is a journey through the beautiful complexities of mathematics and life. With both human sympathy and geometrical elegance, it helps us to see how a geometry of grief can open a pathway for bold action.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 6 members
Maths has been my kryptonite since day one of elementary school, which leaves me with what could euphemistically be described as a myopic view on the beauty of the subject. With the horrors of maths tests far behind me now, though, every once in a while I try to dabble in the odd popular science book for the purpose of cross-pollination - in German you’d call this “Even a blind chicken sometimes finds a kernel”. With that in mind, I was intrigued by the concept of a book marrying the concepts of mathematics and psychology, namely confronting grief through the lens of geometry, a proposition which, if treated well, sounds like a great step in broadening your horizon. But why would you choose to read a book about grief if you’re lucky enough not to be going through it currently? As Frame points out, grief comes in many forms and sizes and, as a highly individualized experience, you don’t need to lose a loved one to feel grief. People can grieve choices they’ve made and the doors that closed permanently as a consequence: “But many of us are haunted by thoughts of a path not taken. Some choices lead us along paths that we cannot reverse. Even if we change course now, what remains of our lives will not unfold as if we had made the other choice years earlier. What might have been is beyond our reach, and we grieve this loss.” You can even grieve the way you used to see the world before you had certain insights. I dare say most lives contain at least a modicum of those kinds of grief, and while you can never truly prepare yourself for when absolute calamity strikes, it can be an advantage to know certain tools exist and how other people employ them. One of the aspects that strike about this book is just how likeable the author is. Deeply steeped in humbleness, the writing is refreshing and, despite the overarching mathematical theme of the book, acutely palpable to lay people, which I presume to be a direct consequence of Frame’s decades spent teaching at Yale. The theoretical parts are always kept as concise as possible, followed by a story to give practical application to what has been discussed, and in my opinion, the messages come across sharp and clear. He dives into (and clears up) popular topics such as parallel universes and the butterfly effect, which lends a great new viewpoint on grieving. Another aspect I highly appreciate is that Frame gives ample book recommendations for further reading. What comes as somewhat of a relieve to me personally is the fact that in this book, geometry is the medium through which the author chooses to express his view on psychological concepts and framing techniques to deal with grief, and the real beauty of the book lies in getting a glimpse into a completely mathematical mind and its outlook, and how it pictures and processes life concepts in terms of algebra. This is absolutely fascinating to behold! I wish the book would end a little less abruptly, I would have preferred a final musing that neatly ties the whole parcel together, but then again, I do like an author who doesn’t waffle on. All in all, this is a marvellous quick read to expand your view on life, nature, and grief. Here some highlights that stood out: “A notion that’s repeated often in this book is that an idea can’t be unseen. Taking in others’ ideas before thinking through my own experiences with grief might have limited how I understood those experiences. […] The first step is to understand your own experience, then see how it fits into established works.” “When I see something beautiful, that first realization is tinged with grief, because I know I’ll never again feel so strongly about it. When I see something pretty, there is no initial gasp like the gasp that accompanies the first glimpse of beauty. Subsequent viewings of the same pretty thing can produce about the same pleasure. We feel no grief, because our initial impression is reproducible.” “I focused on the actions, not the feelings, and imagined other people helping their neighbours in similar ways. I saw what Dad did […] as part of a larger picture. Even though he would not do this again, the idea, the movement, of neighbour helping neighbour, to which Dad belonged, would continue. Projection to the space of neighbour helping neighbour eased the grief.” “Death closes the door to the further experiences with those we have irreversibly lost. But grief opens a door, maybe just a crack, to let us remix memories, see actions in a new way. Let us think what the person who has died would want us to do. Examples are familiar: “In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to…” […] A cause dear to the person who has died gets a boost in their memory. Their influence still is felt.”
This is a fascinating read. To bring in references of The Simpsons, fractal geometry, chaos theory in the context of how people deal with grief is just amazing.
"Could the world be different than we think? Is it different? Must it be only one thing, or can it be many? If we view the world in one way, does this forever bar us from all others?" I remember sitting in the classroom years ago and hearing over and over again 'when will I ever use maths in real life". Our teacher tried to justify these opinions with basic practical uses. In hindsight, I wish he'd thought out of the box and highlighted how maths transcends the obvious mathematical uses and actually offers a lot of covert, real-world applications. I didn't expect such an open-minded way of thinking, challenging the reader to consider the world past the framework by which we understand it, but I appreciated the in-depth explanations and justifications behind the thought-process. Further, I enjoyed the illustrations. The book isn't the easiest read, but it's extremely interesting. I will certainly be recommending. Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC!