Roots of Unity

Roots of Unity

Mathematics: learning it, doing it, celebrating it.

Measure Yourself by the Standard of the Capybara


Are you more or less of a fish than this capybara? Image: VigilancePrime, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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