Thursday, April 15, 2010

Poems starring mathematicians - 2

Published a century later than William Benjamin Smith's "The Merman and the Seraph" (see April 14 posting) we have Crossing the Equal Sign (Plain View Press, 2007)--a poetry collection by Marion Deutsche Cohen.  Cohen lives in Philadelphia and teaches mathematics at Arcadia University where she has used her literary interests to develop a new course, "Truth and Beauty: Mathematics in Literature."  I have chosen several excerpts from Cohen's collection that offer internal snapshots of  her sort of mathematician:

(from p. 12) Someone wrote a book called The Joy of Math.
Maybe I'll write a book called The Pathos of Math.
For through the night I swivel
between intuition and calculation
between examples and counter-examples
between the problem itself and what it has led to.
I find special cases with no determining vertices.
I find special cases with only determining vertices.

(p. 18) A mathematician just sits there.
There is empty paper in front of her.
And it stays empty.
A cat also just sits there with empty paper.
But the cat doesn't mind that.
The cat, in fact, gets right on top of the empty paper.
The cat believes his sitting will fill it up.

(from p. 76)  I don't invent math.
I don't discover math.
I only PLAY math.

(p. 82)  A mathematician should never watch action films.
She has already swum through iron, run without roads, flown
          without sky
has already known too many directions
has already been reduced to a point.

She has had enough of thinking hard
enough of hoping that thinking will save her.

(from p. 91)  a mathematician doesn't give up.
A mathematician insists on insisting
"SOMEthing is going on."

For lots more, get Cohen's book.  For even more than that, visit her website.


  1. The cat lover in me really loves these lines:

    But the cat doesn't mind that.
    The cat, in fact, gets right on top of the empty paper.
    The cat believes his sitting will fill it up.

    Cats always seem so confident that their existence improves the world around them.

    The empty paper has such power for so many: mathematician, writer, artist, ….

    These excerpts have convinced me to check out Cohen’s book!

  2. The empty paper resonates. Like a new beginning it works best when it stays a beginning. Often the thoughts are so subtle and imaginative and the nuances so fleeting that taking pen to paper scares them away. Not writers block but reductionism -- like an authors Heisenberg effect, putting the thoughts and images on paper replaces the energy of the thought with the energy of writing -- and the vibration is lost.

    The nuance and vibration can sometimes be recaptured by looking at the blank paper and remembering. That's why I always carry a blank page -- -- accompanied by a busy notebook where I scribble down the sweet memories on that blank page.