Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chaos Over the Hors d'Oeuvres

Some systems of equations can produce vast changes in output with only small changes in input.  Or not.  This sensitivitiy to initial conditions is a key characteristic of chaos.  As happens not infrequently in mathematics, the term chaos also carries larger-world meanings additional to the correct ones -- indeed, the phenomena studied in chaos theory are not haphazardly disordered but are complex.  Very very complex.  Judy Neri's poem addresses this topic. 

  Chaos Over the Hors d'Oeuvres   by Judy Neri

  Chaos is in
  they said at the dinner party;
  everybody's talking about it.

  the mathematical notion
  that the slightest change
  can turn order into disorder,
  the circle into a tangled skein.

  Dinosaurs could come back to life
  and pigs could fly.

  Just nudge that stone
  one millimeter to the left and
  an explosion will rip the planet
  from its domesticated course
  to wander dark space forever.

  Any mother knows this,
  how the smallest pebble on the track
  can cut the thread of her child's design,
  end the comforing shuttle of the years.

  Now they worry
  chaos won't stop --
  everybody's talking about it,
  how it wanders our streets,
                                      wilding --
          O mathematicians, can't you mend?

     Non-mathematicians who live with mathematicians often write of mathematics with special insight.  Such is the case with Judy, whose spouse is Umberto Neri, retired from the mathematics department at the University of Maryland. "Chaos Over the Hors d'Oeuvres" is found in Neri's collection Always the Trains (New Academia Publishing, 2008).
     An earlier post on this blog of poetry-with-math by family members of mathematicians appeared on 20 July 2010.  Poems of Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect have been posted on 18 January 2011 and 22 November 2010.

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