Thursday, February 2, 2012

Szymborska (1923-2012) on Statistics

Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012)  won the 1996 Nobel Prize for literature; I am saddened by her death -- yesterday, February 1, at her home in Krakow. But one cannot help but rejoice for her poems.  Szymborska did not shy from use of mathematical ideas.  As in this sample:

   A Contribution to Statistics   by Wislawa Szymborska

    Out of every hundred people

    those who always know better:
   -- fifty-two,    

   doubting every step
   -- nearly all the rest,

   glad to lend a hand
   if it doesn't take too long:
  -- as high as forty-nine,

   always good,
   because they can't be otherwise:
   -- four, well maybe five,

   able to admire without envy
   -- eighteen,

   living in constant fear
   of someone or something
   -- seventy-seven.

   capable of happiness:
   -- twenty-something tops,

   harmless singly,
   savage in crowds

   -- half at least,

   when forced by circumstances:
   -- better not to know,
   even ballpark figures,

   wise after the fact
   -- just a couple more
   than wise before it,

   taking only things from life
   -- forty
   (I wish I were wrong),

   hunched in pain,
   no flashlight in the dark
   -- eighty-three
   sooner or later,

   worthy of compassion
   -- ninety-nine.

   -- a hundred out of one hundred.

   Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.

Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak, "A Contribution to Statistics" is on my shelf in Szymborska's bilingual collection Chwila/Moment (Wydawnictwo Znak, 2003).  The original Polish text is available online here and YouTube also offers a video of Szymborska reading this poem.  A slightly different version of the poem above may be found in Numbers and Faces, a tiny anthology of poetry-with mathematics that I edited for the Humanistic Mathematics Network in 2001.  Other work by Szymborska appears in blog postings for  6 September 2010 and 7 September 2010.

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