This essay was published in the Fall 2020 issue of Harvard Public Health. It was edited by Madeline Drexler.
There’s a great secret they won’t tell you until you’ve studied math for years: There are gaps between the things you can count. But mathematics is the study of things that can be counted and measured, so we place these curiosities to one side, where they remain, casting pale and uneasy shadows.
We are a culture that counts things, even more in the past few months than ever before. My phone alerts me: 228 new cases today. I step outside: maintain six feet of distance, and stay no more than 15 minutes. They say the risk of dying is 0.9 percent?or is it more, or less? And I’m 29, so that adjusts it a bit?but my grandmother is my reciprocal, 92, and I’m at once sad and relieved that she lives on a farm 2,014 miles away and not here in a city of 694,583 anxious people.
I am a mathematician, so I count things. Some things I have counted recently include: the number of months until the second wave begins and the number of people who could be hospitalized; the size of the outbreak in New York City and the difference in the number of cases between the rich and the poor. God, it’s big.
We count to understand, yes, but beneath that, we count to dispel anxiety and fear. We count to prepare. It works, most of the time. A thing that can be counted can be managed; it’s like wrapping the arms of our mind around some great object and finding that our fingertips just touch on the other side.
But for an epidemiologist, counting is different. The units are lives. Assigning a number to such a thing does a violent disservice. We count anyway, because we must; because if we count well enough, more people will stay healthy, more will survive.
Still, the uncountable things demand to be heard. I spend my days counting, but at night the specters arise in my dreams. Each ?1? contains a little infinity, something measureless and unrepeatable. I wake, gasping for air.
I once asked a respected professor how she thinks about infinity. It’s not really a thing, she said, but a state of being; it’s an overflowing glass, it’s what happens when you’ve reached the edge of what you can imagine and then keep going. It’s where divisions cease and the concrete and the immaterial embrace. It’s what makes the real intelligible.
That’s what infinity is, she said. That’s what’s hiding there in the gaps. Our bottomless desire for numbers can only be satisfied by something wholly different: not by counting how much and how long, but by telling what, why, who. Stories are what will remain, long after the pandemic has ended.Tell them.
Tell them poorly, tell them well. Our lives depend on numbers, but our souls depend on stories, and now more than ever, we all have one to tell.