Friday, January 31, 2014

On shoulders of giants . . .

     Washington, DC is a city rich with both poetry and mathematics.  Last Tuesday evening I attended a Mathematical Association of America (MAA) lecture by author and math historian William Dunham (whom I knew when he taught for a bunch of years at Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College, in Eastern Pennsylvania, not so far from my employer, Bloomsburg University).  Dunham spoke of insights gained by many hours reading the correspondence of British mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727).  The discoverer of "gravity,"  and, moreover, both a genius and a disagreeable man.  Still, Newton was a man who gave a nod to his predecessors, "If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants."
     My search for a poem that features Newton led me to the website of Arns Publishing and Design where I found this poem by David Arns, and first published in the March/April 1998 issue of Quantum Magazine.    Here is Arns' poem -- it mostly follows the style of  "The Village Blacksmith" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) but deviates to a humorous (and contemporary) ending :

          Sir Isaac Newton   by David Arns

          Under a spreading apple tree,
              The village genius stands;
          His mind conceives of wondrous things,
              He writes them with his hands;
          His fame goes forth to all the world--
              He's known in many lands.

          A tiny babe on Christmas Day
              in 1642
          Was born to Mrs. Newton
              while outside, the cold winds blew.
          And on the farm, through childhood,
              precocious Isaac grew.

            And after chores, he built devices
              to see just how they worked,
          To see what laws of nature
              underneath the workings lurked.
          (When people called them "toys," that's what
              got Isaac really irked.)

            His mother saw he was no farmer,
              sent him off to school;
          He quickly showed at Cambridge
              that he was nobody's fool:
          He began to bring to light the laws
              that all of nature rule.

            In one chapter in his story
               (though apocryphal, it's said),
          An apple, falling from a tree
              impacted on his head,
          Which drew his thoughts to gravity,
              and we all know where that led.

            He wondered if, by any chance,
              the self-same gravitation
          That pulls an apple to the ground,
              affected all creation:
          The moon, the planets, and the sun. . .
              Thus went his cogitation.

            He determined that the gravity
              of earth indeed controls
          The orbit of our moon, as 'round
              the earth it ever rolls.
          Now, describing it mathematically
              was one of Newton's goals.

            He discovered that the math you need
              to show the laws of nature,
          Surpassed the knowledge of that day;
              the cosmos' legislature
          Required new math, so Newton wrote
              his "fluxions" nomenclature.

            He talked of falling bodies
              and his famous Laws of Motion,
          And of colors seen in bubbles
              and the tides upon the ocean.
          And his crowning jewel, "Principia,"
              created great commotion.

            Yes, Newton's brilliant mind, it was
              a trunk with many twigs--
          His mind branched out in every way
              (right through his powdered wigs).
          His greatest contribution, though,
              was cookies made from figs.

More science poems by David Arns are available here.

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