The Culture of Mathematical Literature: A Poetic Exploration


What is the Culture of mathematical literature? Can mathematics have a culture? Yes. According to its definition, culture is, in whole or in part, a particular society at a particular time and place, the knowledge and values shared by a society, or the preferences favored by a particular social group. Being that mathematics is a large contributor of knowledge throughout historical contexts within various societies and at times favored and valued by said groups, then mathematics is cultural. To discuss the culture of mathematics would be to repeat and add to the whole concept of the history of mathematics, Ethno Mathematics, and so on. The cultural preference of mathematical literature however is a burgeoning cultural phenomenon of most recent history. This is true specifically in the creative literature fields such as Mathematical Poetry. To explore this new trend in mathematical culture we must explore its beginnings, the present discoveries, applications, and future possibilities.

Mathematical literature is as old as the written word and mathematics itself; however for this discussion literature concerning mathematical computations must be separated from creative mathematical literature. Text books have always had an important facet in the cultural aspect of knowledge in mathematics. The creative expression of mathematics through literature is entirely different on a cultural level, as it applies to the artistic traditions rather than the knowledge base. Although this defining line exists, throughout the history of creative mathematical literature, this line has been blurred to the benefit of both creative expression and the pursuit of mathematical knowledge, through creative literature. Since the time of the Pythagoreans who connected the universe with numbers, and numbers with the mystical idea of geometry, mathematics remained primarily verbal; axioms, definitions, lemmas, and proofs were expressed in natural language. This progressed to the written word. At this point in history, with analytic geometry and the calculus, symbols created a mathematical albeit artificial language, separate from prior auditory and literary works. Aside from this artificial language, new types of creative mathematical literature have emerged over the past century and new types are being invented even today.

The definition of some types of mathematical literature are; fictional literature for readers of all ages that incorporate mathematical concepts, such as Euclid in the Rainforest by Joseph Mazur, or children’s books, such as counting books, that use fictional stories as a base to teach math in an entertaining way. Other creative uses for mathematical literature have been the use of mathematical riddles or word problems for the benefit of amusement throughout history. Constrained literature and mathematical literature have consistently intertwined in a beautiful dance, sadly seen by too few, called Mathematical Poetry.
One such example is ABC, an Analytic Geometry Poem by JoAnne Growney,

Axes beget coordinates, dutifully expressing functions, graphs, helpful in justifications, keeping legendary mathematics new or peculiarly quite rational so that understanding’s visual with x, y, z.

Creative literature for both children and adults also came in the form of poetry. These include poems that are about math, most often dealing with the emotional reactions to learning mathematical concepts, such as Figures of Thought by Howard Nemerov,

To lay the logarithmic spiral on
Sea-shell and leaf alike, and see it fit,
To watch the same idea work itself out
In the fighter pilot’s steepening, tightening turn
Onto his target, setting up the kill,
And in the flight of certain wall-eyed bugs . . .

Other poetry teaches about mathematical concepts, such as Pi, by Wislawa Szymborska,

The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can’t be comprehended six five three five at a glance.
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.

Some do this through poetic riddles or limericks, which employ rhyme or rhythm in order to assist the memory with mathematical
concepts. Such as The Spider and the Fly, by J.A.H. Hunter

‘Come right into my parlour,’ said
The spider to the fly,
‘And answer one small question, please,
Unless you want to die.
I’ve eaten scores of flies, of course,
But tell me if you dare:
If females had two more, and males
But half their present share,
How many flies like that, d’you think,
I really would require,
To give me twenty-eight fly legs,
The number I desire?’

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