Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Mathematics and Poetry: Poor Bedfellows?

In May 2006, I taught a mini-course on creative writing at the University of Ottawa and had the good fortune to have some distinguished local poets deliver brief readings and talks. After Stephen Brockwell finished his talk/reading, he and I entered upon discussion of the proper ends of mathematical (and to a lesser extent, scientific) enquiry and poetry. Our differing viewpoints may be useful as points of departure for more involved discussion of this interesting and long-standing debate.

Stephen, being deeply interested in mathematics, partly because of his career and partly because of his general passion for learning, argued (in these approximate terms) that the goals of mathematics and poetry are far closer than is often supposed. In fact, says he, they are often one and the same. He claims that the goal of the theoretical mathematician is to learn about the universe and numbers in such a way as to increase humanity’s sense of wonder at the complexity of creation. He cites the work of theorists on the concept of “fuzzy logic” as a good example of such awe-engendering enquiry. In fact, Stephen is toying with the idea of a monograph on this topic, and, if the result evidences the passion he exudes in conversation, it bodes well for the book.

I, however, took a different stance. Far from asserting that math/science should not have intercourse with poetics, I have been criticized myself for incorporating too much nerdy science into my poems. I believe that poetry should encompass all areas of human interest, should “include them like a pool / water and reflection.” The “however” of my position resides in how I view the nature of mathematical and scientific enquiry; I see it as a process of dispelling, rather than courting, wonder. When a mathematician or scientist sets out to “solve” or “tackle” a crux, he or she attempts to master that problem, to peer into the secrets of the universe and push the bounds of what we know, which is just another way of increasing the power of the knower over non-knowers and what is known. Don’t get me wrong; many scientist and mathematicians take a spiritual approach to their work (Stephen is a good example), but the thrust of science and math is ultimately to nail things down, rather than to embrace unknowableness the way poetry does. Perhaps there is more to be made of the distinction between pure and applied science? Any takers?

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