Thursday, December 8, 2011

Monsieur Probabilty

In recent months, I have encountered a variety of poems about mathematicians (Links to several of these are provided at the end of this post.) and one of the sources is Scottish poet Brian McCabe's  collection Zero (Polygon, 2009).    It is said that life imitates art -- and this is vividly demonstrated by the art of mathematics as lived by Abraham de Moivre (1667-1754).  Here is McCabe's poem. 

Monsieur Probability      by Brian McCabe

               Abraham de Moivre 1667-1754

You must remember old Abe de Moivre.
Handsome Frenchman. The nose not quite aquiline
but a nose of note nonetheless. The lip curled
in the manner of the French, as if prepared
to dismiss any poorly expressed idea.
The facial bones gaunt, but refined.
Always in Slaughter’s. He used to slaughter me
at chess -- for a groat, or a cup of coffee.
I didn’t grudge him it. He’d fallen on hard times.
Had to teach the brats of the nobility.
Always carried a few pages he’d cut
from the Principia wherever he went.
If you needed to know the odds on anything,
de Moivre was your man. Monsieur Probability
we called him. His Doctrine of Chances
became known as the Gambler’s Bible,
though he didn’t like to hear it called that,
him being a devoted Protestant.
Not that he’d had much luck:
thrown in jail by Louis the Fourteenth
when he scrapped the edict of Nantes.
After that he came to St Martin’s Lane.
Newton himself would consult him,
take him home for a bit of discourse.
It was him got de Moivre that commission
to decide who came up with the Calculus –
Leibniz or Newton, that great debate.
The Society was taking no chances.
That was the last he saw of Lady Luck.
Reduced to advising the likes of me
on my chances of winning a wager.
Always poring over his figures he was,
almost went blind towards the end.
Used to sleep over twenty hours a day.
They say it was the somnolence killed him.
He could always tell the outcome of anything,
even foretold the day of his own death:
said he slept a quarter hour more every day
so he worked out that when he slept for twenty-four
that would be the day -- and he was right.
And what, sir, are the chances of that?

"Moseiur Probability" was a featured selection (in October 2009) of the Scottish Arts Council.

Links to earlier postings of poems about mathematicians. In 2011: November 13  Portraits of a Mathematician, July 5 Mathematicians at work, July 2 Mathematicians divide, Jan 30 Sonnet for a geometry teacher, Jan 28 Poems starring mathematicians - 8. In 2010, Dec 8 Poems starring mathematicians -- 7, July 20 In the same family -- a poet and a mathematician, May 14 Poems starring Mathematicians -- 6 (Mandelbrot), May 4 Poems starring Mathematicians -- 5, April 28 Poems starring mathematicians -- 4, April 26 Poems starring mathematicians -- 3, April 15 Poems starring mathematicians - 2, April 14 Poems starring mathematicians - 1, March 23 Poetry of Logical Ideas .


  1. Wonderful. Thank you for sharing it.

    One Typo though: "when the scrapped the edict of Nantes." should be "when HE scrapped the edict of Nantes."?

  2. Thanks, Peter. Typo corrected!