Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Discovering the Secret

In this Robert Frost couplet, “The Secret Sits,”  the poet may not have intended to speak of mathematics but his lines sing true for mathematical discovery.

We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

from The Witness Tree.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Glances at Infinity

Counter-intuitive notions are among my favorite parts of mathematics and, in considerations of infinity, these are numerous.  Recalling Zeno's paradox, we capture the infinite finitely in this summation:

     1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/23 + . . . + 1/2n +   . . .    =  1

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sense and Nonsense

     Nonsense verse has a prominent place in the poetry that mathematicians enjoy. Perhaps this is so because mathematical discovery itself has a playful aspect--playing, as it were, with non-sense in an effort to tease the sense out of it.      Lewis Carroll, author of  both mathematics and literature, often has his characters offer speeches that are a clever mix of sense and nonsense. For example, we have these two stanzas from "Fit the Fifth" of The Hunting of the Snark, the words of the Butcher, explaining to the Beaver why 2 + 1 = 3.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Poems starring mathematicians - 6 (Mandelbrot)

More familiar than the name Benoit Mandelbrot are images, like the one to the left, of the fractal that bears his name.  Born in Poland (1924) and educated in France, Mandelbrot moved to the US in 1958 to join the research staff at IBM. A fractal is a rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is a reduced-size copy of the whole, a property called self-similarity. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The epitome -- Euler's Identity

Mathematics is a visual language.  As with poetry, placement on the page is a key ingredient of meaning.  Here is one of my favorite visual poems, "The Transcendence of Euler's Formula," by Neil Hennessy, a Canadian poet and computer scientist.  For additional math-poetry from Neil, follow the link.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Margaret Cavendish (1623-73) -- The Circle of the Brain cannot be Squared

Margaret Cavendish (1623-73) was a writer who published under her own name at a time when most women published anonymously.  Her writing addressed a number of topics, including gender equity and scientific method.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mathematical 'grooks' from Piet Hein

Piet Hein (Denmark, 1905-1996) was many-faceted--by times a philosopher, mathematician, designer, scientist, inventor of games and poet. He also created a new poetic form that he called 'grook' ("gruk" in Danish). Hein wrote over 10,000 grooks, most in Danish or English, published in more than 60 books. Some say that the name is short for 'GRin & sUK' ("laugh & sigh", in Danish).  Here are samples, with links to more:

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Poems starring mathematicians - 5

In my own library this next poem is found (untitled) in Collected Sonnets by Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950),  but it also is found online at various sites. The first line of the sonnet, which announces Euclid as its subject, is well-known to most mathematicians; enjoy here all fourteeen lines.