Although I come from a family of natural mathematicians, this was not an appreciation I picked up for myself right away. My love for math only came after encountering Thomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," a difficult book which makes extended use of mathematical concepts in its narrative arc (or narrative rainbow, as it were). Interestingly, this is not by the glorification of mathematics as absolute reason. After all, math (once one advances into calculus) is dicey stuff that rests on not necessarily what can exist or makes sense (like limits, always approaching a point but never getting there, for eternity) but what allows a problem to be solved. Pynchon allowed me to realize that the basis for mathematics lies not in the abstraction of pure logic, but in hard data and the material world.
For Pynchon, mathematics is not the expression of absolute reason, but rather the symbolic expression of what's real. It does not represent necessarily "what makes sense", but rather an abstracted version of "what could be". The parabola, a symbolic expression of the arc of a V2 Rocket, can continue on past the zero point where the rocket is destroyed, meeting its 'silent extinction' later on. It is this approach which so radically changed my perspective. The material did not descend from a more pure form of logic that is mathematics, rather, mathematics descends as the rough representation of how things are. For Pynchon, math is the charting of patterns, transformations, and analysis which all demands a certain finesse in being able to find the gaps in the real (the infinite and the infinitesimal) to piece the real together.
This altered outlook on math has completely changed my feelings towards the discipline as a whole. Over the past year I've been forced to re-examine what I know now to be calculus's visceral roughness: Its absurdities, its necessities, and the unique eye it takes to solve abstract problems. Pynchon's language was certainly helpful too: the poetic imagery mixed in with the highly technical themes brought the raw elegance of some advanced mathematics to my attention. Manipulated values were not arbitrary, they were at once both married to and divorced from both pure logic and hard facts.
Next year, at the University of Alabama, I will be studying Chemical Engineering rather than math. To really express my appreciation for the field I must use it as a tool rather than merely study it as a subject. To implement math in the solution of engineering problems brings its nature as being descended from the real to the forefront. There can be no function without the data. One of the most surreal moments of the book is when Tyrone Slothrop's sexual activity matches a Poisson distribution of rocket attacks and the actual attacks, point for point. Though illogical and retroactive, the detonation of rockets at each matching point confirms the thesis: mathematics and the material are inherently tied, and engineering the perfect synthesis of the two.