Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Math, Magic, Mystery -- and so few women

Today, April 30, is the final day of Mathematics Awareness Month 2014; this year's theme has been "Mathematics, Magic and Mystery" and it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of the most interesting men of mathematics; educated as a philosopher, Martin Gardner wrote often about mathematics and sometimes about poetry.  Gardner described his relationship to poetry as that of "occasional versifier" -- he is the author, for example, of:

     π goes on and on
     And e is just as cursed
     I wonder, how does π begin
     When its digits are reversed?   

Monday, April 28, 2014

Words that warn

     Somewhere in a high school English class was a small topic that intrigues me still -- "questions that expect the answer 'yes'."  A door opened.  Letting me see that what we say has expectations as well as information. In graduate school math classes we considered the warning word "obviously" -- in a proof, it was likely to mean "I'm sure it's true but am not able to explain."
     As I muse today about language I am wondering how unsaid words affect the population of women in mathematics, affect the numbers (too small) of women publishing mathematics.  Thinking about this in the light of a wonderful time on Saturday greeting visitors to an AWM (Association for Woman in Mathematics) booth at the biennial USA Science and Engineering Festival.  Temple University professor and AWM member Irina Mitrea did an amazing job planning and coordinating  the AWM booth where hundreds of young people got some hands-on experience with secret codes and ciphers.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Too many selves

In my childhood home, numbers were used with care and precision.  There would be teasing when I would use the adverb "too" --- as if when I said "I had to walk too far" I had tried to describe an unbounded distance, greater than any possible span.  Now as an adult I continue to be cautious (and intrigued) with use of that word.  And I am drawn to the uses of "too many" and "count" in the following poem from David Orr, poetry columnist for the New York Times Book Review.

The Chameleon    by David Orr

Alone among the superheroes,
He failed to keep his life in balance.
Power Man, The Human Shark--they knew
To hold their days and nights in counterpoise,
Their twin selves divided together,
As a coin bears with ease its two faces.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Cento from Arcadia

Last week I had the enjoyable privilege of visiting with mathematician-poet Marion Cohen's math-lit class, "Truth and Beauty" at Arcadia University -- and the class members helped me to compose a Cento (given below), a poem to which each of us contributed a line or two of poetry-with-mathematics.  Participants, in addition to Dr. Cohen and me, included these students: 
          Theresa, Deanna, Ian, Collin, Mary, Grace, Zahra, Jen, Jenna, 
          Nataliya, Adeline, Quincy, Van, Alyssa, Samantha, Alexis, Austin.
Big thanks to all!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Remembering Nina Cassian

Exiled Romanian poet Nina Cassian (1924-2014) died last week in Manhattan.  Cassian was an outspoken poet whom I admired for her political views; she also was connected to mathematics -- in her subject matter and her friends.  (See, for example, this posting from January 31, 2011.)

       Equality     by Nina Cassian

       If I dress up like a peacock,
       you dress like a kangaroo.
       If I make myself into a triangle,
       you acquire the shape of an egg.
       If I were to climb on water,
       you'd climb on mirrors.

       All our gestures
       Belong to the solar system.

"Equality" is in Cheerleaders for a Funeral (Forrest Books, 1992), translated by the author and Brenda Walker.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Poetry of Romania - Nora School, Apr 24

     During several summers teaching conversational English to middle-school students in Deva, Romania, I became acquainted with the work of Romanian poets.  These included:  Mikhail Eminescu (1850-1889, a Romantic poet, much loved and esteemed, honored with a portrait on Romanian currency), George Bakovia (1881-1957, a Symbolist poet, and a favorite poet of Doru Radu, an English teacher in Deva with whom I worked on some translations of Bacovia into English), Nichita Stanescu  (1933-1983, an important post-war poet, a Nobel Prize nominee -- and a poet who often used mathematical concepts and images in his verse).
     On April 24, 2014 at the Nora School here in Silver Spring I will be reading (sharing the stage with Martin Dickinson and Michele Wolf) some poems of Romania -- reading both my own writing of my Romania experiences and some translations of work by Romanian poets.     Here is a sample (translated by Gabriel Praitura and me) of  a poem by Nichita Stanescu:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dimensions of a soul

In the poem below, Young Smith uses carefully precise terms of Euclidean geometry to create a vivid interior portrait.

     She Considers the Dimensions of Her Soul   by Young Smith

     The shape of her soul is a square.
     She knows this to be the case
     because she often feels its corners
     pressing sharp against the bone
     just under her shoulder blades
     and across the wings of her hips. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

A Vector Space Poem

     As a Columbia undergraduate, media artist Millie Niss (1973-2009) majored in mathematics and was enrolled in a math PhD program at Brown University when she decided to make writing her full-time career.  Before her untimely death in 2009 Niss was well-established in Electronic Literature.   Here is a link to "Morningside Vector Space," one of the poems at Niss's website Sporkworld (at Sporkworld, click on the the E-poetry link).
     Niss's electronic poem retells a story (inspired by the Oulipian Raymond Queneau's Exercises de Style) in many different styles and following many different constraints. The computer is central to the retelling as the text varies almost smoothly along two dimensions, controlled by the position of the mouse pointer in a colored square (to the right in the screen-shot below).  Behind this poetry is the mathematical concept of a two-dimensional vector space, in which each point (or text) has a coordinate with respect to  each basis vector (version of the text, or dimension along which the text can change).

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fractal Geometry

Lee Felice Pinkas is one of the founding editors of cellpoems -- a poetry journal distributed via text message.  I found her poem,"The Fractal Geometry of Nature" in the Winter/Spring 2009 Issue (vol.14, no 1) of Crab Orchard Review.

The Fractal Geometry of Nature       by Lee Felice Pinkas

               Most emphatically, I do not consider
               the fractal point of view as a panacea. . .
                                             --Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010)

Father of fractals, we were foolish
to expect a light-show from you,

hoping your speech would fold upon itself
and mimic patterns too complex for Euclid. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

April Celebrates Poetry and Mathematics

On April 1 (the first day of National Poetry Month and Mathematics Awareness Month) Science writer Stephen Ornes offered a guest post at The Last Word on Nothing entitled "Can an Equation be a Poem?" and on April 2 the Ornes posting appeared again, this time in the blog Future Tense at with the title "April Should Be Mathematical Poetry Month."
     In her comment on "Can an Equation be a Poem?" Scientific American blogger Evelyn Lamb (Roots of Unity mentioned her math-poetry post on March 21 entitled "What T S Eliot Told Me About the Chain Rule."  Lamb quotes lines from the final stanza "Little Gidding," the last of Eliot's Four Quartets.   Here is the entire stanza with its emphasis on the mysteries of time and perspective, the circular nature of things, the difficulty of discovering a beginning.    

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Logic in limericks

In these lines, Sandra DeLozier Coleman (who participated in the math-poetry reading at the Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore in January) speaks as a professor reasoning in rhyme, explaining truth-value technicalities of the logical implication, "If p then q" (or, in notation, p -- > q ).

     The Implications of Logic     by Sandra DeLozier Coleman

     That p --> q is true,
     Doesn’t say very much about q.
     For if p should be false,
     Then there’s really no loss
     In assuming that q could be, too.  

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Can you SEE the monument?

Links to non-intersecting celebrations of April
as National Poetry Month      and      Mathematics Awareness Month
are available here and here.

Recently I revisited my copy of Elizabeth Bishop:  The Compete Poems, 1927-1979 (FSG, 1999) and turned to "The Monument" -- a poem mathematically interesting for its geometry.  Here are the opening lines; the complete text and many other Bishop poems are available online here:

from  The Monument     by Elizabeth Bishop  (1911-1979)

     Now can you see the monument? It is of wood
     built somewhat like a box. No. Built
     like several boxes in descending sizes
     one above the other.
     Each is turned half-way round so that
     its corners point toward the sides
     of the one below and the angles alternate.