Saturday, April 21, 2012

Statistics -- math to improve man's lot

Today's poem honors nurse and statistician Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and is found in a fine poetry collection by Mary Alexandra Agner, The Scientific Method.

   After Math     by Mary Alexandra Agner

               Florence Nightingale, 1820-1910

   Worth one thousand words, usually,
   but thousands dead
   were inked as a colored nautilus
   with chambers counting corpses
   by disease or sword or bullet.
   Hold this shell to your ear;
   hear only your heartbeat's echo.
   Numbers never had such voice
   until Florence drew
   coxcomb wedges for the dead.

   To the modern world,
   pictures are not epiphanies.
   Lump together all those bodies--
   summed and graphed by hand--
   and the nineteenth century 
   would ache with rot and TB 
   where today we see a piechart.

   Nightingale, sing us the sweet song
   of statistics, math made
   to improve man's lot,
   and of the sortie Dickens wrote,
   his thousand thousand words
   to overthrow your picture.
   Sing up the ghosts of war
   to we who are inured to what remains
   after explosives and machine-gun fire.
   
   Sketch the rows and columns of us, now,
   that we might see ourselves
   and plot to change.


"After Math" first appeared in Science Editor; The Scientific Method was published by Parallel Press in 2011.  I learned of this collection via a review in American Scientist by mathematician and poet Sarah Glaz.
Remember that April celebrates both poetry and mathematics.   A posting of Mathematics Awareness Month activities may be found here.  And check out other poetry conversations happening this National Poetry Month at Couplets where poet and blogger Joanne Merriam is featuring a guided tour of a variety of poetry blogs.

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