Mathematical forms in poetry 5 – number sequences

Sometime around 1550 BC an Egyptian scribe named Ahmes noted down a method for obtaining the area of a circle, in what is the earliest recorded attempt to evaluate the number we know as 𝜋.

The history of 𝜋 (its symbol is the Greek letter pi) is fascinating, as are its many applications in poetry. To 16 digits, the expansion of 𝜋 is

𝜋 = 3.141592653589793.

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Mathematical forms in poetry 4 – Permutations

Permutations are a feature of many poetic forms: rhyme and metrical patterns, the arrangement of lines in a villanelle or pantoum, the rotation of end-words through the stanzas of a sestina. Ruth Holzer’s ‘For Dylan Thomas on His Hundredth Birthday’ is an example of a sestina by a contemporary poet, with end-words wild, skyendhillswavelove.

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Mathematical forms in poetry 3 – Reflection Symmetry

Reflection symmetry, where one half of a shape is a mirror image of the other, is a characteristic of many naturally occurring phenomena: a bird on the wing, the reflection of snow-dusted mountains in the still water of a loch, the hexagonal form of a snowflake. Our own bodies have approximate reflection symmetry.

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Mathematical forms in poetry 1: the Fibonacci poem

The Fibonacci sequence crops up in many different contexts in both nature and mathematics. Starting with 0 and 1, each number in the sequence is the sum of the two preceding numbers, giving

0,   1,   1,   2,   3,   5,   8,   13,   21,   34, …

and so on. The sequence is named after the Italian mathematician Leonardo Pisano, whose nickname was Fibonacci. 

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Poetry and Mathematics

…the forces
that divergent guide my life
are like two teams of horses
straining at my heart.
Yet I contain no vacuum –
and am slowly torn apart.

This snippet of a poem, written when I was seventeen, expresses the conflict I felt between my passion for the arts and for the sciences, specifically between poetry and applied mathematics. To my teenage self, the two seemed inherently incompatible. Mathematics, as I understood it at the time, was logical and disciplined, whereas poetry required what Keats described as ‘Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’ (Keats, 1817).

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Beginnings

Was it like that for you as well, when you were at school? Words lived. They had histories, back-trails to ancient Greek rhetoric or Roman sensibility, to mediaeval French farms, soggy lowland water-meadows, absurd colonial rituals. They sang, they danced, with their own characteristic rhythm and energy. You could play with words, write stories, compose poems, tell jokes, formulate riddles, act them out, set them to music. And you could read them, voraciously.

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