April 11, 2014 | 2
We all know a lot of measurements about ourselves. You are some number of feet or meters tall. You weigh some number of pounds, kilograms, or stone. Your BMI is some number of kilograms per square meter, even though humans are not two-dimensional. You have some number of milligrams of cholesterol in each deciliter of your blood and can type some number of words per minute. But how does your watermelon consumption compare with that of a capybara? Are you more or less stretchy than a capybara? Perhaps we should start measuring ourselves by the standard of the capybara.
As Stephen Ornes pointed out at the beginning of the month, April is both Mathematics Awareness Month and National Poetry Month, so logically we should be reading mathematical poetry. “Unit of Measure” by Sandra Beasley is a perfect poem for this purpose. This year’s Mathematics Awareness Month theme is “mathematics, magic, and mystery.” How could a poem that proposes the capybara as a universal ruler not be magical? How could the fishiness of the capybara not be mysterious?
“Unit of Measure” by Sandra Beasley, from I Was the Jukebox (W.W. Norton & Company)
All can be measured by the standard of the capybara.
Everyone is lesser than or greater than the capybara.
Everything is taller or shorter than the capybara.
Everything is mistaken for a Brazilian dance craze
more or less frequently than the capybara.
Everyone eats greater or fewer watermelons
than the capybara. Everyone eats more or less bark.
Everyone barks more than or less than the capybara,
who also whistles, clicks, grunts, and emits what is known
as his alarm squeal. Everyone is more or less alarmed
than a capybara, who—because his back legs
are longer than his front legs—feels like
he is going downhill at all times.
Everyone is more or less a master of grasses
than the capybara. Or going by the scientific name,
more or less Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris—
or, going by the Greek translation, more or less
water hog. Everyone is more or less
of a fish than the capybara, defined as the outermost realm
of fishdom by the 16th-century Catholic Church.
Everyone is eaten more or less often for Lent than
the capybara. Shredded, spiced, and served over plantains,
everything tastes more or less like pork
than the capybara. Before you decide that you are
greater than or lesser than a capybara, consider
that while the Brazilian capybara breeds only once a year,
the Venezuelan variety mates continuously.
Consider the last time you mated continuously.
Consider the year of your childhood when you had
exactly as many teeth as the capybara—
twenty—and all yours fell out, and all his
kept growing. Consider how his skin stretches
in only one direction. Accept that you are stretchier
than the capybara. Accept that you have foolishly
distributed your eyes, ears, and nostrils
all over your face. Accept that now you will never be able
to sleep underwater. Accept that the fish
will never gather to your capybara body offering
their soft, finned love. One of us, they say, one of us,
but they will not say it to you.
You can listen to Sandra Beasley reading the poem at the Poetry Foundation website. While introducing the poem, she assures us that all of the capybara trivia in it is true. Even the Catholic Church fish thing. (Jason Goldman, another Scientific American blogger, wrote about that last year.)
My favorite math poetry source is JoAnne Growney’s blog Poetry with Mathematics, which I wrote about for the American Mathematical Society Blog on Math Blogs. Last January I wrote a post on this blog featuring Sandra DeLozier Coleman’s poem about groups. And just last month I wrote about how T.S. Eliot was helping me think about math. After you have measured yourself against the capybara (and, I presume, found yourself wanting), I hope you will find some other mathematical poems to enjoy.