Sex and solving mathematical problems are the same process. Sometimes they are surprisingly quick, inducing a moment of ecstasy but an ultimately unfulfilling experience. Other times, you can try for hours with no progress on the floor of a study room in PSB until you inevitably realize that cumming with a condom just isn’t an option for some people. Even though you know the person you’re with hasn’t gotten tested, you’re still willing to trust them because they have an IUD — and because you haven’t touched a breast since 10th grade English class during a haunting read-aloud of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Generally, however, as you grow in either mathematical maturity or sexual ability you learn your needs and what problems you have the potential to solve or, in my case, how to eat pussy and smash. Perhaps the strongest parallel for me is that as soon as I solve a problem or conclude sex, I proudly announce to the room: “I fucking got it!”
The ways in which people approach sex and mathematicians approach problems have parallels. Some mathematicians like Erdos attempt to rack up as many partners as possible by looking for elegant solutions to quick and dirty problems, which makes Erdos the mathematical equivalent of a fucc boi complete with an addiction to amphetamines. Other mathematicians like Alexander Grothendieck develop an immense amount of theory so that sex happens naturally. There’s no way that sex would not have happened with the mood that Grothendieck carefully sets. Grothendieck was thus the master of foreplay, the king of the long-game and the father of algebraic geometry. Sometimes people attempt the Grothendieck style by playing the long-game only to never actually successfully achieve their goal. These people work for years — often in secrecy in hopes that all of the theory they build up would provide them with a solution — and they are often inspired by the works of Grothendieck such as Éléments de Géométrie Algébrique — the math bible. In the romantic case, this would mean obsessing for years over a close friend with no interest in you only to learn that’s you won’t achieve a relationship if your inspiration is Ryan Gosling’s sexually charged performance in The Notebook, the romantic film analog of EGA. In mathematical circles (i.e. Simple Closed Curves), we call that the Mochizuki method.
Hook-up culture is the same as exploring many different areas of math until inevitably deciding algebraic geometry is too hard, geometric topology is really just the word problem, and any accessible problem in combinatorics has already been solved or is an outrageously specific graph theory problem that it is not really interesting. Some mathematicians become totally dedicated to a subject with a lot of results in the beginning and then decreasing amounts until a consistent schedule is established that is sometimes slowed down by a pregnancy. This is analogous to how sex begins and decays in a marriage. As you get older and older sex and mathematical lives dwindle, and once you’re over 40 you no longer qualify for the highest achievements such as the Fields Medal or sex with someone who wasn’t out of breath the whole time. Even introducing new definitions of terms and names in mathematics equates to masturbating, which makes perfect sense in the context of the study of formal logic — the academic equivalent of masturbation.
Some connections inform our behavior. Pretty much anybody can learn mathematics in the same way anybody can learn sex. Some people have talent, but at the end of the day, it’s all about practice and having good teachers. Some people like weird shit, and that’s totally okay and sometimes useful. I don’t know why anyone would fuck their teddy bear or study stable commutator length. I’ve tried both and would recommend neither, but if I hear people like stand-up comedian Greg Davies and mathematician Danny Calegari, it doesn’t make me think less of them. Finally, and most importantly, making people solve problems when they don’t want to solve problems is pretty fucked up and doesn’t work to have them learn mathematics. The people who come to love mathematics must arrive at that decision on their own, since the best and only way to learn mathematics is to find a problem you think is interesting and ostentatiously rub the surface of its recently washed asshole.
Erogenous Jones is a student at Cornell University. His column Anals of Mathematics runs periodically this semester.