I used to believe that only words could capture the essence of the human soul. Stanzas of poetry posed questions about life and death and everything in between. Pieces of prose contained stories so distinct and visceral they shaped the way we see the world. Words were what composed the questions we sought to uncover and the answers to those questions themselves. Words were everything.
That belief changed.
What started off as a mundane math class, slowly flourished into something profound. My teacher posed a simple question: What’s 0.99 rounded to the nearest whole number?
Easy. That’s elementary math. When rounding to the nearest whole number, 0.99 = 1. Somehow though, equating the two values seemed deceitful. I thought to myself, even though 0.99 is only 0.01 away from 1, there’s still a 0.01 difference. That is to say, even if two things are only a little different, they are still different, so doesn’t that make them completely different?
My teacher answered my question by presenting another equation: 1 = 0.9̅ which can also be expressed as 1 = 0.999999999999999…………… repeating itself without ever terminating. These 2 numbers are completely, mathematically the same, he said, laying out the algebraic arguments to prove his claim.
I let those numbers linger in the back of my mind as I continued on with my day. There was something ominous and eerie but at the same time fascinating and awe-inspiring about the equation. The left side was definitive, objective: it contained a number that terminated. On the right was something endless, a number repeating itself an infinite number of times. Something unfathomable. Something vast. Yet, somehow, these 2 opposed things were connected together by an equal sign. No, not just connected — the same.
As I lay in bed, letting existential angst wrap itself over me like a blanket, I thought about how much the equation parallels our existence. Just like the left side of the equation, life itself is sometimes so definitive and so clear. The concrete, whole number of the day you were born. The terminating number that will someday list the day you died. The definitive, predictive ending to life: death. But then there is that gap in between life and death: the left side of the equation. A time and space full of infinite possibilities, sequences of events, and endless opportunities trickling out into the open, into the future.
The universe seemed to agree with me as I tried to fall asleep that night. I looked out of my window and gazed into space, suddenly rationalizing how limitless it was. The endlessness of the stars twinkling in the sky. The vastness of the hollowed out black sky that had the moon perched upon it. The space, the sky, the stars — just like the left side of the equation. Infinite. Then my eyes flickered back to the ceiling. The roof of my room: explainable, terminating, a finite slab of concrete. This was the right side of the equation pulling me back to reality with the force of a black hole.
So maybe that’s what life is. Objective but imaginative. Sublime but ominous. Terminating but, somehow, infinite at the same time. Life is an equation with two sides that balances itself out. It’s a question, an idea that’s proposed to us that we ponder about and attempt to solve. It’s something we know exists.
Still, we can’t ever truly seem to put the perfect words to it. So maybe numbers can truly express ideas as equally well as words can. Maybe numbers can explain the world around us, while words can explain the numbers themselves. Maybe they are connected by their own equation.
For now, let’s leave it at that:
1 = 0.999999999999999……