Tag Archives: Sunday Poem

Sunday Science Poem: The Number Pi

“The Number Pi”, Wisława Szymborska (1976)

While in Chicago for the Drosophila genetics conference last weekend, I managed to visit some Polish bookstores. My haul included a volume of poems by the late Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska. Many of Szymborska’s poems engage with scientific ideas and their connection to our experiences of the world, and as it turns out, she wrote a poem about the number Pi.

The poem grapples with the mind-blowing idea of an infinite sequence of digits. Pi is woven into the poem, where it interrupts the narrator’s effort to draw comparisons to snakes, bird nests, comets, and stars. These comparisons fail as the number flows on, and they are replaced with numbers and fragements of the real world, including phone numbers, pocket change, and quotes from the Polish poet Mickiewicz and the bible.

And so, to finish off Pi day weekend, here is probably the only poem about this number by a Nobel Laureate.


The Number Pi

Admirable number Pi
three point one four one.
All its following digits are also initial,
five nine two, because it never ends.
It won't allow itself to be embraced six five three five by sight
eight nine by calculation
seven nine by imagination,
and even three two three eight by jest, or by comparison
four six to anything
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth, after a dozen or so meters peters out.
Likewise, though a little later, do fairy-tale snakes.
The procession of digits that make up the number Pi
doesn't halt at the margin of the page,
it manages to pull itself over the table, through the air,
through the wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, the clouds, straight to heaven,
through the entire inflated and bottomless heaven.
O how short, downright mouse-like, is the braid of a comet!
How frail the star beams, that bend around the bounds of space!
And here two three fifteen three-hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size
the year nineteen seventy three the sixth story
the number of residents sixty-five grosz
hip circumference two fingers a charade and a code,
in which my little nightingale, fly, crow
as well as you are requested to keep calm,
and also heaven and earth shall pass,
but not the number Pi, no way no how,
it is continually its still not too bad five,
that no mean eight,
the not final seven,
urging, yes, urging a slothful eternity
to persist.

Translated from the Polish by Michael White

Sunday Science Poem: The Geometry of Love

Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Definition of Love’ (1681)

Kepler_Mars_retrogradeWhy are 17th century poets like John Donne, George Herbert and Andrew Marvell called ‘metaphysical’ poets? You can trace the name back to John Dryden, who in an unabashedly sexist comment accused John Donne of “affect[ing] the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses… perplex[ing] the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy when he should engage their hearts, and entertain them with the softnesses of love.”

Well, the Metaphysical poets proved that you can in fact engage the heart with science. Continue reading

Astronomy + Poetry from CosmoAcademy

As you know*, we like to mix our science and our poetry. Mike has generously loaned this Philistine the reins to the Sunday Science Poem franchise, which I promptly moved to Tuesday; but I had to move it to Tuesday because I don’t want you to miss out.

CosmoQuest is offering an online course (via Google+ Hangouts) looking at the intersection of astronomy and poetry:

Astronomy has played a role in human culture for thousands of years and appears in literature from every era.  We can see not only the influence of the heavens on our writings, but also the influence of language itself on our conception of astronomy. Heralding the dawn of the International Year of Light in 2015, join us now to explore how light from the stars has been important to humans for millennia.  We will begin with Gilgamesh and Homer, and continue through Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, and into contemporary music and literature.  Along the way, we will also examine how the structure of language has influenced the perception of astronomical phenomena. – CosmoQuest Academy

The classes start on Monday, 17 November 2014 at 9PM (ET). Sign-ups (cost $99) are open until Monday, but there are only 8 spots left.

HT: Matthew Francis

*Frankly, I’m tired of coddling you newbies**.

**Have we decided on a sarcasm font***?

***I imagine all those exchanges are constantly derailed by people writing, “I think this one really works” in a proposed font, and then wondering, “Do they really like it or are they being sarcastic****?”

****…which may actually be a sign that it is working.

Science Denial Then and Now

George Herbert’s “Vanity (I)” (1633)

Science has always made people uncomfortable. Witness the recent comments from the U.S. House Science (Denial) and Technology Committee:

We’ve had climate change since the day the earth was formed, whenever that was, depending on whatever you believe. — Rep. Bill Posey (R – FL)

I just don’t know how y’all prove those hypotheses going back fifty, a hundred, you might say thousands or not even millions of years, and how you postulate those forward. — Rep. Randy Weber (R – TX)

These confused politicians are part of a long tradition that stretches back to the beginnings of modern science itself. George Herbert was a friend of Francis Bacon, but the pious Herbert wanted nothing to do with Bacon’s radical ideas about the natural world. Herbert’s recent biographer John Drury explains:

Long before the discoveries of Darwin and modern astrophysics, some explanation of how everything had come into existence and how it worked was required. Divine creation provided that, had no challengers, and held the field. The natural world presented no moral problems. Rather, it provided ample scope for the investigation of the heavens and the earth which was beginning to gather pace among intellectuals, led by Herbert’s older friend Sir Francis Bacon. In his early poem ‘Vanity (I)’ Herbert was chary about such ‘philosophy’ as it was called, dismissing astronomy and chemistry as too speculative to occupy the valuable time of the practical Christian.

Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, John Drury p. 12

Continue reading

Sunday Science Poem: George Herbert and our psychic connection with nature

George Herbert’s “The Storm” (1633)

Badlands2Why does nature move us? Driving through the South Dakota Badlands this summer was a moving experience. The bare, jagged landscape evoked feelings of calm, happiness, and awe — how can a bunch of rocks have such emotional resonance?

Neurobiologists have struggled to understand the biological basis of a sense of beauty. As Bevil Conway and Alexander Rehding wrote:

Insofar as beauty is a product of the brain, correlations between brain activity and experiences of beauty must exist. At what spatial scale, and within what brain regions, do we find these correlations? What functions do the brain regions implicated serve in other behaviors? What signals during development and experience are responsible for wiring up these circuits? And perhaps most critically, how does the activity of these circuits integrate across modalities and time to bring about the dynamic, elusive quality of beauty?

We don’t know what it is about natural beauty that specifically activates those circuits, or even what those circuits are. But an psychological link between nature and our brains seems to be a universal trait.

In “The Storm,” the great English metaphysical poet George Herbert links the awe-inspiring action of a thunderstorm with the movement of his conscience.

The Storm

If as the winds and waters here below
                                    Do fly and flow,
My sighs and tears as busy were above;
                                    Sure they would move
And much affect thee, as tempestuous times
Amaze poor mortals, and object their crimes.

Stars have their storms, ev'n in a high degree,
                                    As well as we.
A throbbing conscience spurred by remorse
                                    Hath a strange force:
It quits the earth, and mounting more and more
Dares to assault thee, and besiege thy door.

There it stands knocking, to thy music's wrong,
                                    And drowns the song.
Glory and honour are set by, till it
                                    An answer get.
Poets have wronged poor storms: such days are best;
They purge the air without, within the breast.

Image credit: Badlands National Park, Michael White, 2014.