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Romantic math

04/09/04 12:00AM By Dan Rockmore
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(Host) You might think that math and romance are an unlikely combination, but commentator Dan Rockmore assures us that they're actually very compatible.


(Rockmore) Recently, I got married. It was a great day, full of fun, food, and friends, tearful toasts, hugs, and kisses. It's a day where the heart is supposed to rule the head, but believe it or not, it's also a day full of math.

The math starts with the planning. Worrying about the weather, suddenly you begin to wonder about the probability and statistics in the statement "thirty percent chance of rain"; you fret over the nonlinear dynamics of the infamous butterfly effect, by which the flapping of a butterfly's wings over China might generate the barest breeze that amplifies over time to a huge storm thousands of miles away in, say, Hillsdale, New York.

Ok, so maybe you can't do anything about the weather overhead, but at least the atmosphere at the tables is under your control. Seating arrangements are the concern of the mathematics of combinatorics, a subject that helps analyze questions like "how many different ways is it possible to seat 8 people around a circular table?" (The answer is 5,040.) It also allows you to deduce that if you put six people at a table, then either you'll have at least 3 who all know each other, or at least 3 who don't all know one another.

After all the mathematics of the preparations, there is the math of the ceremony. At its high point it is marked by a moment full of geometry in which the tying of the knot is marked by the giving of a circle beneath a square.

Ellen and I had a Jewish wedding, so while standing beneath the square canopy or "chupah" our union is sealed with a ring given from the man to the woman. By Jewish law the ring must be a simple gold band uninterrupted by stones or inscriptions. The circle is both bounded and boundaryless, as a walk along a circle is constrained in space, yet can go on forever. In this way it is symbolic of both the finitude of man and the everlasting nature of love and commitment.

But of all the math at a wedding, ultimately, it comes down to some puzzles of basic arithmetic. As Ellen and I finished our "I do's," suddenly one and one were joined to make a new one, but as my father-in-law pointed out not so subtly in his toast, what's now on the minds of the assembled guests is when this one and one will combine to make another one.

From Hanover, New Hampshire, this is Dan Rockmore.

Dan Rockmore is a professor of mathematics and computer science at Dartmouth College. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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