**HOW are mathematics and poetry similar?**

Often-quoted in mathematical circles are words from mathematician Karl Weierstrass (1815-97): “It is true that a mathematician, who is not somewhat of a poet, will never be a perfect mathematician.” And from physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955): "Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas." More recently, from Lipman Bers (1914-1993): “ . . . mathematics is very much like poetry . . . what makes a good poem—a great poem—is that there is a large amount of thought expressed in very few words."

I agree with each of these quotations, but they overlook another key similarity between mathematics and poetry--the appreciative awe experienced by mathematicians and poets when they encounter great work. An occasional mathematical proof--for example, an elegant rendering of Euclid's proof of the infinitude of the primes--takes my breath away with the depth, power and beauty of the ideas; that is, the proof affects me with the same gasp of delighted amazement as does a very special poem (such as Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World").

To explore math-poetry comparisons, the following "fill-in-the-blank" statements can be useful. Some of these statements have been made by poets and some by mathematicians--and either "poetry" or "mathematics" (or a slight variant such as "poem" or "mathematician") correctly fills each blank. While pondering choices for the missing words, similarities between mathematics and poetry come into view.

I agree with each of these quotations, but they overlook another key similarity between mathematics and poetry--the appreciative awe experienced by mathematicians and poets when they encounter great work. An occasional mathematical proof--for example, an elegant rendering of Euclid's proof of the infinitude of the primes--takes my breath away with the depth, power and beauty of the ideas; that is, the proof affects me with the same gasp of delighted amazement as does a very special poem (such as Richard Wilbur's "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World").

To explore math-poetry comparisons, the following "fill-in-the-blank" statements can be useful. Some of these statements have been made by poets and some by mathematicians--and either "poetry" or "mathematics" (or a slight variant such as "poem" or "mathematician") correctly fills each blank. While pondering choices for the missing words, similarities between mathematics and poetry come into view.

(1) ______ is the art of uniting pleasure with truth.

(2) To think the thinkable -- that is the ______'s aim.

(3) All ______ [is] putting the infinite within the finite.

(4) The moving power of ______ invention is not reasoning but imagination.

(5) When you read and understand ______, comprehending its reach and formal meanings, then you master chaos a little.

(6) ______ practice absolute freedom.

(7) I think that one possible definition of our modern culture is that it is one in which nine‑tenths of our intellectuals can't read any ______.

(8) Do not imagine that ______ is hard and crabbed, and repulsive to common sense. It is merely the etherealization of common sense.

(9) The merit of ______, in its wildest forms, still consists in its truth; truth conveyed to the understanding, not directly by words, but circuitously by means of imaginative associations, which serve as conductors.

(10) It is a safe rule to apply that, when a ______ or philosophical author writes with a misty profundity, he is talking nonsense.

(11) ______ is a habit.

(12) . . . in ______ you don't understand things, you just get used to them.

(13) ______ are all who love--who feel great truths

And tell them.

(14) The ______ is perfect only in so far as he is a perfect human being, in so far as he perceives the beauty of truth; only then will his work be thorough, transparent, comprehensive, pure, clear, attractive, and even elegant.

(15) . . . [In these days] the function of ______ as a game . . . [looms] larger than its function as a search for truth . . . .

(16) A thorough advocate in a just cause, a penetrating ______ facing the starry heavens, both alike bear the semblance of divinity.

(17) ______ is getting something right in language.

**The words missing are**: (1) Poetry (Samuel Johnson), (2) mathematician (Cassius J. Keyser), (3) poetry (Robert Browning), (4) mathematical (Augustus De Morgan), (5) a poem (Stephen Spender), (6) Mathematicians (Henry Adams), (7) poetry (Randall Jarrell), (8) mathematics (Lord Kelvin), (9) poetry (T.B. Macaulay), (10) mathematician (A.N. Whitehead), (11) Poetry (C. Day-Lewis), (12) mathematics (John von Neumann), (13) Poets (P.J. Bailey) , (14) mathematician (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), (15) poetry (C. Day‑Lewis), (16) mathematician (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), (17) Poetry (Howard Nemerov).

This posting borrows from an old publication of mine in the

*American Mathematical Monthly*, Vol. 99, No. 2 (February 1992). It also was part of "Mathematics and Poetry: Isolated or Integrated,"

*Humanistic Mathematics Network Newsletter*#6 (May 1991).

The beauty of poetry and mathematics lies in their compression. Shakespeare says that "Brevity is the soul of wit [intelligence]", and Ockham's razor maintains that the most economical explanation is the most persuasive. Poetry reminds me of nuclear fusion: small amounts of matter cause incredibly large explosions.

ReplyDeleteIt seems that one could put philosophy in the blanks as well or even most branches of philosophy.

ReplyDelete