Modeling the Universe in a Closed Court

Carlin Wing

In this paper, I use the example of court tennis, or jeu de paume, an early European form of tennis played on an asymmetrical court, to ask why we have been playing ball sports in symmetrical enclosures ever since the Enlightenment. Court tennis is organized around asymmetry and ricochet. Its courts are irregular in several senses. No one court is precisely identical to any other (although they all share common features), and every particular court is asymmetrical. In fact it is doubly asymmetric, that is, if you bisect the court either along its length or along its width, you will in each case be left with two nonidentical areas. This is markedly different than the fields, courts, rinks, and pools that we currently kick, bat, and hit balls around. These spaces are to be identical to others of their kind, and each particular space can be divided equally both lengthwise and widthwise. Those that cannot be bisected twice (such as baseball fields,) can at least be split in a single direction.

The irregularity of the court tennis court throws our present day spaces of play into relief, and testifies to the historical moment of its emergence. Court tennis its heyday in the 16th century, when Paris alone sported 250 courts. It is one of only two sports represented in Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Thomas Hobbes played regularly. And Jacob Bernoulli used it to further his groundbreaking work on probability in The Art of Conjecturing, together with Letter to a Friend on Sets in Court Tennis. A close examination of this irregular sport opens up the question: what are the affordances and consequences of presuming and aspiring to symmetry? Where does asymmetry appear in these systems? I will argue that court tennis was a site for the demonstration and development of the dualing concepts of probability identified by Ian Hacking—epistemic and aleatoric—and that the sport also demonstrates the emergence and naturalization of a related and signficant duality in the concept of equality, one between ethical equality and mathematical symmetry.