Sandra DeLozier Coleman
Having just completed the English translations of Sofia Kovalevskaya’s two parallel plays, HOW IT WAS and HOW IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN, the plays and the mathematics behind them were on my mind as a hand-drawn, unmeasured, algorithmic image of key elements in the plays took form. Kovalevskaya, the first woman to earn a PhD in mathematics, also gained significant recognition as a writer. She explained in a prologue to the two plays that she intended the parallel plays to present how the idea of extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, as demonstrated by Poincaré in his research on the three-body problem, relates to the way an alternate choice, made at a critical moment in a person’s life, can redirect all future events.
In each play, the lives of a set of six characters are intertwined. The characters in the two sets are almost, but not entirely, the same. Slight dissimilarities are sufficient to lead them to make significantly different choices at critical moments, leading to very different endings. The image, like the plot, unfolds from the fires of an Ivan Kupala’s Eve celebration. From there, a 60° rotational symmetry pattern represents both sets of six characters, who are understood to have traveled parallel paths until a crisis leads to radically different responses. The resultant opposite endings appear as two contrasting, overlapping 120° symmetries, where the shapes of the outer curves reflect a change in how the characters have been paired.