Monday, April 26, 2010

Poems starring mathematicians - 3

Today's poems illustrate the satirical humor and rhyme that frequently inhabit poems by mathematicians. (Previous postings of poems about mathematicians include March 23, April 14, and April 15.)

I Even Know of a Mathematician      by John L Drost

        “I even know of a mathematician who slept with his wife only
                   on prime-numbered days…” Graham said.
                            ―Paul Hoffman, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers

A mathematician was obsessed with things prime.
He thought about them almost all of the time.
Said to his dear wife, "It truly seems right
That we should only make love on a prime-numbered night."
His wife thought for a bit ('cause she was no dummy),
"At the month's start this does seem quite yummy,
For there's two, three, five, seven
A three-night hiatus and then there's eleven.
But of the month's end I start to be wary
Near the twenty-third day of the month February.
For the next prime day after will be March the first
Such sexual continence might cause me to burst!"
He shook his head sadly, "As it's commonly reckoned,
The next prime day would be found on the second."

John Drost is a professor at Marshall University; his wife also teaches mathematics.  This poem is included in the collection, Strange Attractors:  Poems of Love and Mathematics (A K Peters, 2008).

Keith Allen Daniels (1956-2001) was a research scientist by day--and at the end of the day also a poet, science-fiction writer, editor, and publisher. The following poem, "Satan is a Mathematician" is taken from the book of the same name (Anamnesis Press, 1998).  "Satan is a Mathematician" was awarded the 1995 Rhysling Award (Honorable Mention) in the Short Poem category.

Satan is a Mathematician       by Keith Allen Daniels
       for Ambrose Bierce

The tatoo demon laughed.
"I shall inscribe you with pi --
a pi whose digits are fractal glyphs
of transcendental agony, whose serifs
are inflorescent with infinities.
And I shall render it with all
the panache of a pointillist
creating continua from the discrete.
But where to begin?  The anus
or the omphalos?  The alpha or the omega?"

"Hey,wait a minute!", cried
the mathematician, and the demon
raised an eyebrow.  "Pi's an irrational number
with a non-repeating decimal.
Such a task would take an eternity!"

"Imagine that," said the demon,
and smiling smugly, it poised a talon
tapering to a single atom, plucked lint
from the navel of its flinching victim.

Playing his last card, the mathematician
rose up on his elbow.  "Have you really
thought about this?  When the flesh
of one man emblazoned subsumes the infinite,
you will have modeled God from numbers
and I will destroy you!"

"The other eyebrow twitched.  "Well, then,
I shall adorn you with the closest
rational approximation of pi.
Over and over again."

"Shit!", said the mathematician.

"As you wish," replied the demon,
and began with the anus.

The anthology, Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics, contains a number of poetic portraits of mathematicians including "The Mathematician in Love" by William J Macquorn Rankine and "Number Man" by Carl Sandburg. The opening lines of each of these poems are given here:

The Mathematician in Love

       I     (of 8 parts)
A mathematician fell madly in love
      With a lady, young, handsome, and charming:
By angles and ratios harmonic he strove
   Her curves and proportions all faultless to prove.
      As he scrawled hieroglyphics alarming.
    . . .

Number Man

       for the ghost of Johann Sebastian Bach

He was born to wonder about numbers.

He balanced fives against tens
and made them sleep together
and love each other.

He took sixes and sevens
and set them wrangling and fighting
over raw bones.
 . . .    .

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