Editor's note (11/7/13): Find the entry point and new posts of Bob Grumman's M@h*(pOet)?ica at http://poeticks.com/

#StorySaturday is a Guest Blog weekend experiment in which we invite people to write about science in a different, unusual format – fiction, science fiction, lablit, personal story, fable, fairy tale, poetry, or comic strip. We hope you like it.


First let me introduce what must be civilization’s very first non-repeating infinite decimal fraction, pi (or 3.1416 . . . whose numbers after its decimal point, which go on forever, in a never-repeating sequence, are what makes it a non-repeating infinite decimal fraction*). Or, in its more famous form: π. As I have it in the poem below:

Okay, a bit of a warped introduction to pi, and not having anything to do with it as a mathematical term. That’s because it’s my impression of it as a poet! I’ve named it, “ArchaeoMathemaPoem No. 1,” mainly because I like to coin pretentious long words and shove them into my writings wherever I can, but also because that’s a pretty accurate description of it. It is “Mathema” because of its being a long division example, “Archaeo” because having to do with the Ancient Near East where π was discovered, at least in rough form, and a poem, because its aesthetic punch would be cut in half, if not reduced by more than that, without its four words (π counting as a word, for me) and its “b.”, since these supply all of its aestheticonceptual meaning.

At this point, I have a chance for a few words on behalf of the value of giving artworks titles, one of my Important Causes. By calling this work what I do, I’m able to help people divine its meaning. It ought to make them think of “archaeology,” or the study of the human past. That should lead them to ancient math because of the prominence in the work of π. “Wheat” should help, too, by centering them on the beginning of farming, otherwise known as the beginning of civilization.

Carrying out the work’s long division will then provide a reasonably smooth path into what I call the poem’s “foreburden,” or main meaning. I hope. My intention with all my poems is to make them hard enough to solve to be fun, but not so hard no one can penetrate them. The chief job left to the poem’s “pleruser”** is to relax into appropriate connotations. None of the terms’ denotations mean much except π’s. Once in place, they should sing the praises of Western Civilization’s earliest cultural triumphs. (See footnote*** for the terms’ connotations that I want to come across, if you need to.)

The connotations of the poem’s colors are important, too—albeit not centrally so. I gave π its hue to suggest the preciousness of gold, and the royalty of the “sun.” But I made it a shade of green a tad more attention-grabbing than a more common hue would be, and I want it clearly to be the center of the piece. “BEYOND” is violet because fading into an ultra-violet future . . . Yellow suits “starlight” and “wheat,” but I’m not sure why the b. is the color it is, or—really—why I like red as the background color, except that read, as the spectrum’s most active color, best dramatizes the triumph the poem celebrates. I also subjectively like the way the colors I chose interact.

Don’t ask me why I chose the surrounding graphics I did. I’d made them, with the red background, with no idea for a poem in mind, then decided for some reason that they worked pretty well visually with my long division. And I do believe in giving all my long division poems an interesting setting. (I’m pretty sure, knowing me, that I wasn’t keen to sweat out a completely new background, too.)

Now, finally, we can go on to the circle which, I hope you will all remember from school, is defined by π, having a circumference equal to it times two times its radius (r), and an area equal to it times the square of its radius. No further explanation of the following series should be needed:

What comes next will be smooth sailing for everybody who remembers that the circumference of a circle is equal to π times two times the circle’s radius (r), as in:

When I was once invited to give a presentation to Miami public school art teachers, I tried to think of math poems I could show them that their kids might understand and I came up with:

What I am saying with this one is simply that the circumference of a circle with a radius which is not some number, but the term, “spring,” is equal to 2(spring)π. Since everyone knows that spring is equal to pretty that determines the visual appearance of the circumference. What such a radius does to the circle’s area due to the squaring of pretty is not available for disclosure at this elementary level. Private lessons from Professor Grumman at $1,000 per hour are available, however. Inquire at Scientific American headquarters for details.

The effect of having radiuses that are seasons is straight-forward for r = summer and r = autumn:

The effect of winter as a radius is not straight-forward, at least in my geometry:

The varying sizes of the images are intentional, by the way—winter seeming to me shriveled, summer expansive.You’ll need the title for the next one. It’s “Cynic’s Circle.”

I could, and may, call these “Variations on the Lengths of Radii.” Their possibilities seem to me endless.

Note K-12 art teachers: I’d be really pleased if some of you would have your kids make mathexpressive circle poems like mine and you sent the more interesting ones to me. If I got enough for an entry, I’d love to give publicity to kids being creative, and teachers allowing them to be! In any case, I am definitely going to have more entries about circles

Before shutting down this entry, here’s something a bit less straight-forward that the specimens so far on display here. It’s “random number,” by Carlyle Baker:

One reason I very much like it is that it seems somehow appealing to me even though I am almost entirely befuddled by it. I’ve recently been reading about quarks and gluons and the possibility of preons, which also almost entirely befuddle me, so this seems to me mainly about physics. Certainly it concerns the pursuit of systemized understanding of so much of the universe that seems random, the way it arranges smudges (fingerprints?) into the two most simple, “perfect” shapes we know of, the circle and the square. And, hey, I just noticed that one could play chess or checkers on the square!

The work draws us unarguably into First Things due to its absence of color and the primitive vagueness of its shapes. Its simple charge (?) of plus one contributes to this effect. It is too axiomatic to say more about. . . .

And here’s “function,” which is also by Carlyle Baker, from my previous entry:

(Note, when I first typed the previous line, I typed “here’s” as “here’x”—which I’m now unsure was a mistake.) Since I like to use artists’ statements (and make them when I’m the artist involved, as should be rather obvious), I asked Carlyle for some comments on this. “i don't know what to say about the pce, always attracted to old diagrams, mechanical drawings etc.,” he said. “i think this pce may be about the hadron collider experiments that took place recently. X is a number but there is always another number it could be.. i use broken lines, dashes to indicate probability. and of course after some time a theory may not fit our reality. also interested in how science and technology affect large parts of our lives. science-fiction, just wonder about life on earth 100 years from now?”

I think I like it most as a sort of 500-year-old alchemical diagram of 21st-century cutting-edge physics. And on that note, I will leave you.

* * *

* Apologies to those knowing what a non-repeating infinite decimal fraction is, and to those who don’t know what it is and don’t want to know, but I’ve got teaching genes in me that make it hard for me not to explain everything—in detail—no matter how trivial, well-known or irrelevant.

** Yes, I’m definitely getting carried away. This should be the last of my coinages for this entry, however. A “pleruser” (“plural” plus “peruser”) in my aesthetics is one who is fully experiencing an artwork. It’s a needed word, in my view, for someone engaged with a poem like mine here who must act as more than a reader: he must also view it. In the final analysis, it is an unnecessary term, but I use it to emphasize that what is being “plerused” is not only to be read. It suggests, too, a need on the part of the pleruser to concentrate.

*** I use “BEYOND” to convey the idea of advancing, “wheat” is there to represent the beginning of farming, “starlight” to suggest astronomy, which I consider, with farming (and commerce) crucially important for the beginning of mathematics—and the discovery of p--and the “b.” is just the tag for the second item in the list of cultural breakthroughs that mankind will make after the discovery of p. Lesser but still significant, connotations for the poem’s elements will come into play if it works the way I want it to, such as the dimness of the long-ago the poem is about, its being starlit rather than sunlit.

Previously in this series:


M@h*(pOet)?ica: Summerthings

M@h*(pOet)?ica–Louis Zukofsky’s Integral

M@h*(pOet)?ica—Scott Helmes