Saturday, October 26, 2013

Two cultures

The opening poem of Uneasy Relations by mathematician-poet Michael Bartholomew-Biggs is concerned with similarities and differences between mathematical and poetic cultures -- a topic of immense interest also to me and one that I too try to address in my verse.  I wonder --  HOW can I show non-mathematicians that good mathematics is poetry??!!  And, moreover, how can I (mostly a mathematician) write (as advocated by Wallace Stevens and agreed with by other poets) of things rather than (as mathematics wants) of ideas.  OR, may one make poetry of ideas?

   Two Cultures     by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs

   Graves claimed there isn't
   much money in poetry:
   and none vice-versa.

   The first part stays true
   if we replace poetry
   by mathematics. 

   Algebra of verse
   lays down rules for pantoums and
   tests for sestinas:

   but where are the books 
   explaining the poetry 
   of computation?

   Poets show, don't tell:
   build metaphors from concrete
   and specific bricks.

   In mathematics,
   abstract and general is
   our bread and butter.

From Uneasy Relations (Hearing Eye, Torriano Poetry Pamphlet Series, No. 53, 2007).  (On 19 October 2012 Bartholomew-Biggs' poem "Teaching practice" (also from Uneasy Relations) was posted.)  The musings of this collection stretch mathematical topics to ideas more personal.  After fourteen pages of verse, the poet offers six pages of mathematical notes -- and I think that even non-mathematical reader will appreciate this juxtaposition of the precise notions with their poetic suggestions.  (Alas, I have not found a good way to reproduce the graphics here -- I need you to buy the book!)  Here is  a another verse sample:

from  Extrapolations     by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs

   Taylor's Theorem

   If we knew it all
   for just a single moment
   we'd hold the future.

   Mean Value Theorem

   If we know in part
   then, like stopped clocks, our forecasts
   will be right -- just once
   . . .

British mathematician Godfrey Harold "G. H." Hardy (1877-1947) wrote in 1940 an essay -- A Mathematician's Apology -- on the aesthetics of mathematics; as Hardy before him, Bartholemew-Biggs endeavors to offer insights -- for those outside the field -- into mathematics.

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