Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Is mathematics discovered -- or invented?

The issue of whether mathematics is invented or discovered is posed often.  Less frequently, queries as to where poetry falls in these categories. Perhaps individual answers to these questions depend on how each of us, from the inside, views the workings of the mind.   Here we have, from poet (and math teacher) Amy Uyematsu,"The Invention of Mathematics."  

The Invention of Mathematics        by Amy Uyematsu
                         A man who is not somewhat of a poet
                         can never be a mathematician.
                                      Karl Weierstrass, German mathematics teacher

/ one

one is the only true number
the I in the eye
each baby the god
in a mother's sigh

/ two

after the number two there was no stopping
troubles blossoming
in geometric progression
two to tango
and two required for murder and war
Doris Day singing
love me or leave me
and the tragic lob
of my nervous girlheart
th-thump, th-thump
she already knew
that deafening silence
when the call goes unanswered
th-thump, th-thump
with its inevitable
downbeat on two

/ seven

how could 7 not be lucky for me
with four 7s in my phone number
the year I was born 47 reversing perfectly
to 74 when I gave birth to my son
whose sign is in July, the 7th month,
like my mother and father,
two stubborn Leos in their vigorous 70s

I'm thankful to be
a Saturday matinee kid
raised somewhere between
Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs,
7 Brides for 7 Brothers,
and Kurosawa's heroic
7 Samurai

Japan has 7 gods of fortune
with the only woman
being the goddess Benten,
ruler of the sea,
a lute-shaped biwa in her arms
she's the guardian
of literature and song

and 7 syllables, a gift of blood
the line of a tanka swinging
to 5-7-5-7-7- rhythms
the tradition of haiku parties
jamming long into night
only natural I'd arrive
with a poem in my hand

/ irrational

how fitting there are even eccentrics
among the legions of numbers
so stubborn they defy
any notion of orderly arrangement
numbers like pi or the square root of two
whose decimal translations
burst all reasonable boundaries
never repeating
no end in sight to their
unwinding names

and I have to admit
I wave the banner
of every so-called irrational woman
who can juggle five things in each hand
a skill little girls learn by nine or ten
while our somewhat dazed
and mystified mates
stand by in hopeless wonder

/ the imaginary number i

my student don't get the joke
after all, every number is imaginary
even those we count out
as beads and stones and miles to the sun

I tell them about some nameless
mathematicians who nobody paid
much attention to
always gazing at stars

those early oddballs and nerds
locked in their rooms
pondering pages of silly calculations
as if all life depended on them

until somebody yelled i
let's make up a new number
defined as the square root
of negative one

blasting open the infinite
which no one can see
able to chart arrow to bull's eye
through windstorm and breeze

Poet Amy Uyematsu is a sansei (third-generation Japanese American) from Los Angeles. An award-winning poet, Uymatsu also taught high school mathematics for many years.  "The Invention of Mathematics" is from her collection, Stone, Bow, Prayer (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).  Many of Uymatsu's poems are influenced by mathematics including, in addition, "The Meaning of Zero:  A Love Poem"  (from Stone, Bow, Prayer and also found in the anthology Strange Attractors:  Poems of Love and Mathematics.)

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