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Tidbits of Math in Culture

January 4, 2012 Leave a comment

You learn funny things from the Mathematica Room at the Hall of Science. Silly biographical details (Galois wasn’t the only idiot). The unfolding of various fields writ in miniature (calculus; probability; algebraic topology). That there were three different (related) Bernoullis who were mathematicians (how did I never figure this out?! Well, can’t say I pay much attention to first names, nor do, apparently, the people who put names to theorems in textbooks.) Two that caught my eye today:

(1) Chaucer apparently published a book on alchemy and was a well-known alchemist in his day. I would’ve realized that if I’d gotten around to the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale. See here: “Genre: a nouvelle or short story, infused with alchemical instruction and told in the manner of a thief’s confession rather like the ‘Pardoner’s Prologue.'”

(2) The scientific preoccupations of the Romantic poets are well-documented (see, for example, Richard Holmses’ The Age of Wonder, or consider that Coleridge coined the word “scientist” as a pejorative term at one of the first Royal Society meetings, or consider Wordsworth on Newton). I’m reminded now that I need to circle back to the Metaphysical poets and see more of the land there, particularly what they’re doing with Platonic geometric forms. The ending of Donne’s A Valediction Forbidding Mourning comes to mind:

Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.

(This does poor justice to the use of circularity in the poem: lovers set as linked weights pulling each other along, never too far, tension and release woven throughout.) But these lines from Marvell (the beginning of “Upon the Hill and Grove at Billborow”) started off this chain of reminiscences:

See how the arched earth does here

Rise in a perfect hemisphere!

The stiffest compass could not strike

A line more circular and like,

Nor softest pencil draw a brow

So equal as this hill does bow;

It seems as for a model laid,

And that the world by it was made.

I really like the compass/soft pencil apposition. Breezily encompasses (har–sorry) the organic and the geometrical in the landscape of Creation.

But my favorite part of today at the museum was mulling over the Nikon Small World contest winners–showcasing the wonders of light microscopy (plus some polarizers and dyes). Here’s my favorite:

Sand at 4x. Yep. That's right. Sand, motherfuckers.

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Categories: Poetry, Popular Science