Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Goldbach's conjecture -- easily stated but unsolved

This blog's July 20 posting featured work from poets who have spouses or siblings who are mathematicians.  Today, introducing the work of  Michele Battiste (who considers Goldbach's conjecture), we again honor that theme.  Goldbach's conjecture asserts that every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as a sum of two prime integers.   For example, 4 = 2 + 2, 6 = 3 + 3, 8 = 3 + 5, 10 = 7 + 3 or 5 + 5, and so on.  The conjecture was first proposed in 1742 by German mathematican Christian Goldbach in a letter to Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler -- and in 2010--though it has been verified for many, many, many even integers--it still remains unproved. 

     Postulates impossible to prove are the easiest ones to grasp,
     an application of Golbach’s Conjecture:       by Michele Battiste

                                                               every even number
     greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes,
     which makes a great game on the uptown A-train from West 4th
     Street to 101st – a competition of elegance with empty pockets.
     Example: 88 = 17 + 71, symmetry trumping the easy 83 + 5,
                   the clumsy 29 + 59, the claim that 41 + 47 works
                   just as well.
     But examples are entitled to nothing. Somewhere between Times
     Square and 59th he says stop being pretty. Prove it’s true.

     Truth is, we blew our 40 bucks on 4 drinks at Zinc Bar.
     Job offers and tomorrow’s lunch are ghosts we hope are real.
     The money will come from somewhere. Hypothesis guards
     its logic with good reason.

              Attempts at proof: the properties of magnetism,
              the bounty of primes, the indiscretion
              of addition – an affair of 4 months = a cross-continental
     Never mind that our great Thai restaurant find
     turns out to be a chain, or tonight’s accommodation is a twin
     bed and a shared toilet down the hall, this city has
     an ocean and somewhere an empty room waits
     for us to come and undress and be quiet, settle in
     each other.

     Somewhere near 96th Street I give up equations,
     lay my head on his chest and count the clicks
     by ones. He gives me a solution.

     “No one has yet proven it, and nobody
     has proven it wrong.”

"Postulates . . . ." (above) first appeared in Mid-American Review (2007/8) and "Splitting . . ." (below) first appeared in Pool  (2007). Poet Michele Battiste is married to a mathematician whose job title is software engineer, She got partway into calculus in high school and met truth tables in college. Her favorite algebraic postulate is the Transitive Property of Equality -- "it's so inclusive."

     Splitting the Distance, an advanced application
               of Goldbach's Conjecture:     by Michele Battiste

                                                 every number greater
     than 3 can be expressed as the average of two primes or
     as this: You don't know how to dress
               for a New York winter; in Wichita,
               my parka grows musty from neglect.
     or this: The graphite in your freshly purchased
               mechanical pencil is a compromise, stiff
               enough to ache a little, soft enough
               not to break.

     These plains are yours, this postulate, this pad of graph paper you
     left behind. My voice echoes through the phone, offering 88.
     Manhattan leans heavy, the air thick with signals in
     your reply: 3 and 173 — a easy, impatient proficiency,
     but without me you got your head caught in the subway doors.
     The crowded car stared at the amazing lack of symmetry.

     Wichita is dry tonight, shriveling. The west-bound
     wind could snatch the napkin from your lap
     as you sit in Washington Square eating dosas, but it lost
     your greasy thumbprint in Brazil, Indiana. That city is like every
     city — filled with mathematicians without solutions. This city
     has a ghost town woman lost in contemplation of

     the Given: a finite set of integers that never fail
               the gap from there to here.
     I wanted 79 and 97, split like twins and pressed together. I want
     to hollow out the number line and throw digits in the river.


  1. I'm embarrassed to make this comment, JoAnne, because it shows how behind I've gotten visiting your fascinating blog. But Michelle Battiste's work is worth a Capital Yes! For doing what good poetry always does, but also for stimulating thought. My own thoughts included the not-too-profound question, has the fact that two odd integers added together will always yield an even integer been proven. My guess is no. I'm not too sure that it can't be proven that the addition of two integers will always yield an integer, though. But I can't see how. It should always yield a number, too. Could it be that even that can't be proven?!

    all best, Bob