Monday, September 27, 2010

Ideal Geometry -- complex politics

Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was an American poet, novelist, and publisher who was the son of a poet and musician (Lilian Janet Bird) and a mathematics professor (Frank Morley) at Haverford College. His "Sonnet by a Geometer," below, is written in the voice of a circle and compares mathematical perfection with human imperfection.  For us who read the poem 90 years after its writing, Morley's phrase in line 13 -- "They talk of 14 points" -- is puzzling at first.

     Sonnet by a Geometer          by Chistopher Morley

                   The Circle

     Few things are perfect: we bear Eden's scar;
     Yet faulty man was godlike in design
     That day when first, with stick and length of twine,
     He drew me on the sand. Then what could mar
     His joy in that obedient mystic line;
     And then, computing with a zeal divine,
     He called π 3-point-14159
     And knew my lovely circuit 2πr!

     A circle is a happy thing to be—
     Think how the joyful perpendicular
     Erected at the kiss of tangency
     Must meet my central point, my avatar!
     They talk of 14 points: yet only 3
     Determine every circle: Q.E.D.

Since "Sonnet by a Geometer" (from Chimneysmoke, George H Doran Company, 1921) was published shortly after the end of World War I, I conjecture that Morley's 13th line  refers to the 14 principles proposed by President Woodrow Wilson (in January 1918) as a basis for ending the war and for keeping the peace.  This interpretation is consistent with his opening comparison of the perfect simplicity of the circle (uniquely determined by only three points) to the imperfect complexity of human endeavors.

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