Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Like poetry, mathematics is beautiful

     Congratulations to Justin Southey who is completing his doctoral studies in mathematics at the University of Johannesburg under the direction of Michael Henning. Recently Justin contacted me to ask permission to include one of my poems in the introduction to his dissertation, "Domination Results:  Vertex Partitions and Edge Weight Functions."  Here is a portion of Justin's request: 

I first came across your poetry (in particular, the poem ["Like Poetry, Mathematics is Beautiful"]) in a small publication produced for maths enthusiasts and olympiad entrants while at school in South Africa in the late 1990's. For my undergraduate degree I was lucky enough to be enrolled in a university where I was able to major in both mathematics and drama and I selected your poem as the poetry choice for my final performance examination. I believe I owe the distinction received in that course to the strong affinity I held with the subject matter. To this day it remains one of the few poems I can still recite by heart and I'm only sorry for not contacting you about it at the time. Now, I am in the process of finalizing the thesis for my PhD in graph theory and I would very much like to include your poem in the introduction.

     Thank you, Justin, for the honor of inspiring your work.  (Interested readers make look back to postings on 10 January 2011  and 14 June 2010 for tributes to several who inspired me.)
      The poem, "Like Poetry, Mathematics is Beautiful" (first published in the May 1994 issue  of the American Mathematical Monthly), was written early in my poetry career -- and I look back on it with nostalgia.  It is not a good poem but it says something  that needs to be said -- mathematics, like poetry, is full of beauty (a matter indisputable among those who know the language) and is too-often misunderstood as mere calculation.

   Like Poetry, Mathematics is Beautiful

   Timidly I ask
   each one I meet if they
   find mathematics beautiful
   or useful, and each one dares to say,
   "Useful, of course. I use it every day."
   And if I seem to want a proof,
   they all go on to tell
   that daily they subtract and add
   to keep a checkbook; sometimes also
   they multiply to find how many squares
   they need to tile the kitchen floor.

   Mathematics is not only plus
   and minus, not just counting one,
   two, three. There are rules to bend
   defiantly, so parallels
   will meet before infinity. Look
   at the magic of unending terms
   that converge to a finite sum:
   start with one-half plus half of one-half
   plus half of the last again and again.
   Though we go on forever, we never
   pass one. Do you find me di fficult? Oh, dear!

   Suppose, instead, I ask
   if poetry is beautiful
   or useful. Will each person say,
   "Useful, of course. I use it every day."
   And if I seem to want a proof,
   will they go on to say that they
   use rhymes to call to mind the days
   of a month -- like "Thirty hath
   September" -- and to remember
   how to spell words with 'i' and 'e'.

   I have a faint, enduring hope
   that someday folks will see
   mathematics to be
   as lovely
   as poetry.                                  
                                                 by JoAnne Growney

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