Sunday, September 23, 2012

From the Scottish Cafe

     A poetry collection by Susan Case (see also 5 July 2011 and 5 August 2011 postings)  -- The Scottish Cafe (Slapering Hole Press, 2002) -- celebrates the lives and minds of a group of mathematicians in Poland during World War II.  The observations and insights of Case's poems add new dimension to the important story of The Scottish Book  -- a book in which the mathematicians recorded problems and their solutions.  
     First published in a mimeographed edition in 1957 by Stanislaw Ulam, The Scottish book: mathematics from the Scottish Café (Birkhäuser, 1981) may now be seen and searched at GoogleBooks and the full text of the preface is available here ; it was sent by mathematician Stanislaw Ulam (1909-1984) -- who discovered how to initiate the fusion process for the hydrogen bonb -- from Los Alamos to mathematics professor Edward Copson (1901-1980) in Edinburgh in January, 1958.     The Scottish Book is a vivid record of mathematicians at work together.  Here, from The Scottish Cafe, is "Fusion" -- in which Ulam looks back from the US to Lvov, Poland.

Fusion   by Susan H Case

               there was too much of Lvov, and now
               there isn't any.  . . .
               --Adam Zagajewski

Ulam in America
is homesick
Colorado doesn't have winters
as marvelously brutal as Lvov
he misses arguing with the other mathematicians
over whether the Scottish or Roma Café
has better bread

besides ever since he taught in LA
there is a glitch in the wiring of his brain
a change not only in weather
but personality
I do the big ideas now
he tells his students
the details are for others
but he can't help spouting his jokes
stories limericks
mixed with the grand ideas
compression from shock waves from fission
essential to explosion
nuclear propulsion

his friends think he behaves a little oddly
but no one is allowed to talk about it
or the dilemma
of having to carry everything
including his lemmas and formulas
in his head
not writing them down
his mind too fast for his hands
maybe it's an eye problem
his wife pleads for him to get glasses
and eventually he does but still avoids paper
after all -- what could be larger
than Teller and the thermonuclear bomb

but mostly he wears the glasses
to watch snow fall as he stands wistful
at the kitchen window
where he likes the way the snow settles
in the crooks of the aspen trees
in his sleeping backyard
remembering the time before the deportations
the chestnut trees of Lvov

To gain a full sense of the spirit of the Lvov problem-solving collaborations, one needs to acquire Case's The Scottish Cafe -- or, indeed, The Scottish Book.  Two previous postings from on this material were made on  5 July 2011 and  5 August 2011.

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