“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 fragments 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