zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Grothendieck’s mathematics and Child Born of Water

Grothendieck’s mathematics and Child Born of Water

[ by Charles Cameron — two approaches to mathematics, two types of heroism, and their respective complementarities ]

I wish to propose a clear analogy between the mathematician Grothendieck‘s two styles of approach to a problem in mathematics, and the Navajo Twin Gods, Monster-Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water.




Steve Landsburg‘s post, The Generalist, compares two approaches to mathematics, as practiced by two eminent mathematicians:

If there was a nut to be opened, Grothendieck suggested, Serre would find just the right spot to insert a chisel, he’d strike hard and deftly, and if necessary, he’d repeat the process until the nut cracked open. Grothendieck, by contrast, preferred to immerse the nut in the ocean and let time pass. “The shell becomes more flexible through weeks and months — when the time is ripe, hand pressure is enough.”


In the paras leading up to this one, Landsburg gives us the insight that these two approaches can be generalized as “zooming in” and “zooming out”:

Imagine a clockmaker, who somehow has been oblivious all his life to many of the simple rules of physics. One day he accidentally drops a clock, which, to his surprise, falls to the ground. Curious, he tries it again—this time on purpose. He drops another clock. It falls to the ground. And another.

Well, this is a wondrous thing indeed. What is it about clocks, he wonders, that makes them fall to the ground? He had thought he’d understood quite a bit about the workings of clocks, but apparently he doesn’t understand them quite as well as he thought he did, because he’s quite unable to explain this whole falling thing. So he plunges himself into a deeper study of the minutiae of gears, springs and winding mechanisms, looking for the key feature that causes clocks to fall.

It should go without saying that our clockmaker is on the wrong track. A better strategy, for this problem anyway, would be to forget all about the inner workings of clocks and ask “What else falls when you drop it?”. A little observation will then reveal that the answer is “pretty much everything”, or better yet “everything that’s heavier than air”. Armed with this knowledge, our clockmaker is poised to discover something about the laws of gravity.

Now imagine a mathematician who stumbles on the curious fact that if you double a prime number and then halve the result, you get back the number you started with. It works for the prime number 2, for 3, for 5, for 7, for 11…. . What is it about primes, the mathematician wonders, that yields this pattern? He begins delving deeper into the properties of prime numbers…

Like our clockmaker, the mathematician is zooming in when he should be zooming out. The right question is not “Why do primes behave this way?” but “What other numbers behave this way?”. Once you notice that the answer is all numbers, you’ve got a good chance of figuring out why they behave this way. As long as you’re focused on the red herring of primeness, you’ve got no chance.

Now, not all problems are like that. Some problems benefit from zooming in, others from zooming out. Grothendieck was the messiah of zooming out — zooming out farther and faster and grander than anyone else would have dared to, always and everywhere. And by luck or by shrewdness, the problems he threw himself into were, time after time, precisely the problems where the zooming-out strategy, pursued apparently past the point of ridiculousness, led to spectacular, unprecedented, indescribable success. As a result, mathematicians today routinely zoom out farther and faster than anyone prior to Grothendieck would have deemed sensible. And sometimes it pays off big.


I no longer have — alas — a copy of Where the Two Came to their Father, the first volume in the Bollingen Series, with its suite of 18 sand paintings beautifully rendered in silkscreen by Maud Oakes, but their respective black and blue colorations lead me to suppose that the illustration at the head of this post, taken rom that series, shows the twin heroes, Monster Slayer (black) and Child Born of Water (blue) whose journeys and initiation are the subject of the rituasl “sing” recorded in that book.

The theme of two male hero twins is central to the mythologies of the American continent, according to Jospeh Campbell, who contributed a commentary to Oakes’ recording of Jeff King‘s performance of this ceremony, and lacking both the King > Oakes > Campbell book and Gladys Reichard‘s two volumes on Navaho Religion, I must draw on brief quotes from miscellaneous web sources to dramatize the differences between the twins.

Monster Slayer is the doer of deeds, similar in nature to other masculine, not to say macho, heroes — while Child Born of Water is the contemplative of the pair:

The Sun [Jóhonaa’éí] gave them prayersticks and then told them that the younger of the two (Born for Water) would sit watching these prayersticks while the older (Monster Slayer) went out to kill the monsters. If these prayersticks began to burn, this would signal that his brother was in danger and that he should go to him to help.

Reichard explains:

Monster Slayer (na’ye’ ne’zyani) (I) represents impulsive aggression, whereas Child-of-the-water represents reserve, caution, and thoughtful preparation.

A measure of their respective strategies, and of the ways in which the insights of Child Born of Water can succeed where the brute force tactics of Monster SLayer fail, can be gleaned from this section of their story, also I believe taken from Reichard:

When The Twins visited Sun the second time, he said he was willing to help them, but this time he wanted them to return the favor: “I wish you to send your mother to the west that she may make a new home for me.” Whereupon Monster Slayer, believing himself equal to any task, replied, “I will do so.I will send her there.” Then Child-of-the-water reminded them both: “No, Changing Woman is subject to no one? we cannot make promises for her. She must speak for herself? she is her own mistress. But I shall tell her your wishes and plead for you.”


One commentator glibly suggests that the joint presentation of the hero as twins is “a clever reminder that progress depends upon cooperation between our mind and our heart” — but the psychologist Dr Howard Teich offers a far more depthful interpretation: that the two twins represent two forms of masculine heroism, one the familiar macho hero of war movies, and the other wiser and subtler, the possessor of traits commonly attributed to the feminine — and hugely undervalued — in our culture.

Dr Teich suggests we must (urgently) abandon the division of virtues into “male” and “female” types, reognize that these types are complementary rather than rivalrous, that both are necessary functions of both males’ and females’ psyches, and begin to integrate the wholeness that both strategies together represent, in our own approaches to our lives in general, to the natural world around us, and indeed to warfare — unsurprisingly, since we first encounter the twins in the ceremonial specifically devised by the Navajo to protect young warriors on their way to battle, and to reintegrate them in harmony and balance on their return.

As Teich puts it:

Monster Slayer and Child Born of Water, as these Twin Heroes are called, are the most sacred of all the legendary heroes in Navaho mythology. It is rare for the Navaho even to speak of the twins; their presence is to be felt rather than observed, and their lessons absorbed rather than applied. Although the lessons the twins hold may be countless, their particular manifestation of a deeper, more complex image of masculinity deserves the reader’s especial attention.


I’d like to suggest that in the same way that there are “zooming in” and “zooming out” styles in mathematics, and “monster-slayer” and “born of water” styles of heroism, there are in fact twin traditions of understanding the world which we might term scientific and poetic, or in Teich’s terms — and those of the alchemists — solar and lunar.

A unified or “solunary” vision will encompass the virtues of both.


Dr Teich’s review of the King > Oakes > Campbell book under the title A Dual Masculinity was irst piublished in The San Francisco Jung Institute Library Journal, Vol. 13, No. 4, 1995. He now has a book out treating these themes: Solar Light, Lunar Light.

Oh, and please don’t expect me to know anything more about Grothendieck’s mathematics than I read in Landsburg’s article.

Comments are closed.

Switch to our mobile site