January 15, 2013 | 5

Evelyn Lamb is a postdoc at the University of Utah. She writes about mathematics and other cool stuff. Follow on Twitter Evelyn Lamb is a postdoc at the University of Utah. She writes about mathematics and other cool stuff. Follow on Twitter

I am home from the Joint Mathematics Meetings, and I’m still trying to process everything I learned and got fired up about there. Most of my time was spent in formal, serious lectures, many of them quite technical, but on Friday night, I went to something completely different: a mathematical poetry reading, facilitated by the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics. Some of the featured poets are mathematicians or math teachers, while some are full-time writers with an interest in math.

Mathematics is often portrayed as a sterile, robotic discipline, but many mathematicians find it to be an emotional, human endeavor. The mathematical poetry session tapped into those emotions in very direct ways, but I also feel it when talking with researchers in my field of study or struggling with a math problem that won’t quite work the way I want it to.

My favorite poem of the night was “Group: n. collection, set, assembly,” by Sandra DeLozier Coleman, who has graciously allowed me to share it below. The poem is more than a poem: it is also an accurate definition of a mathematical group. (As is often the case, mathematics uses a standard English word in a very precise way.)

To me, this poem captures the gap that sometimes exists between student and teacher, and I can see myself in both roles. If you’re curious about the mathematical underpinnings of the poem, try Wolfram MathWorld’s Group page. I’m interested in other creative expressions of the mathematical concept of group. If you know of any, please share them with me in the comments or on Twitter. And for more mathematical poetry, check out the M@h(p0et)?ica series on the Guest Blog.

Without further ado, here is the poem, along with Sandra DeLozier Coleman’s introduction.

*In this second poem I’m poking a bit of fun at the futility of expecting a mathematician to explain a math concept, as familiar to him as his name, in language even a first week student will understand. Here the voice is of an Abstract Algebra professor who is attempting to explain what makes a set a group in rigorous rhyme!*

* *

*Group: n. collection, cluster, set, assembly*

* *

*“Define a group,” the student asks.
*

* *

*We’ll need a set that’s well-defined,
*

* *

*The rule for forming combinations
*

* *

*Except for the identity.
*

* *

*The student looks a little dazed.
*

Rights & Permissions

Add a Comment

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, Future

X
“Now, is he lost or just amazed?”

Both! Lost and amazed at the same time…;)

Great poem though!

Link to thisLondon calling

Link to thisWhere are your numbers?

wavelengths, orderly progression

predict, project the disease

the world is calling

where are your numbers?

A few more mathematical songs and poems:

An oldie but goodie is “Finite simple group of order two” by the Klein Four Group from Northwestern (I think they might be defunct now):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BipvGD-LCjU

And their youtube channel here: http://www.youtube.com/user/kleinfour?feature=watch

Gerard Bierne shared these two poems about converses and necessary/sufficient conditions:

http://www.ditchpoetry.com/gerardbeirne.htm

His latest book is called Games of Chance and contains a variety of mathematical poems.

http://gamesofchance.wordpress.com/category/poems/

And a redditor shared the following true mathematical limerick:

Link to thisThe integral of z squared, dz

From 1 to the square root of 3

Times the cosine

Of 3 PI over nine

Is the log of the cube root of e.

Thanks redditor and Evelyn that limerick is just marvelous.

Link to thisYes, it’s a great limerick. A Twitterer shared the following haiku:

Link to thisthe square root of two

no fraction can equal it

whence irrationals