Friday, December 30, 2011

Physics & Math - Rhyme and reason: The Victorian poet scientists

There once was a man who loved math, who thought he was Sylvia Plath… <i>(Image: Marcelle Faucher/First Light/Getty Images)</i>
There once was a man who loved math, who thought he was Sylvia Plath… (Image: Marcelle Faucher/First Light/Getty Images)

When formulae failed them, James Clerk Maxwell and other eminent men of science turned to verse, with often hilarious results

"The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way," Paul Dirac famously grumbled to fellow physicist, and amateur poet, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Thus, he added, "The two are incompatible."
Dirac, perhaps, did not approve of his scientific forebears. Poetry has been a long-standing tradition in the natural sciences, and Victorian scientists, in particular, had a wide-ranging education that fostered a powerful affinity with the Muse. "Nature, under its first editor Norman Lockyer, regularly published verse," notes Daniel Brown, a professor of English at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Many of the central scientific figures of the day would converge on various social clubs, he adds, where they would "recite and indeed sing poems they had written".
Brown has been investigating this unique strand of English verse for his new book, The Poetry of Victorian Scientists: Style, science and nonsense, to be published next year by Cambridge University Press. It should provide a welcome contrast to the bulk of previous studies on 19th-century poetry, which had found an ambivalence to science in the work of the era's better-known voices, while ignoring the more informed verse of those practising the disciplines. Although never as skilfully executed as the work of Tennyson and his ilk, these poems are witty, playful, and reveal much about the interests and personalities of their writers.
James Clerk Maxwell, famous for his unifying theory of electromagnetism, was one of the most prominent Victorian poet scientists. Besides more serious attempts to express the trials of academic study, his work contained humorous ways to explain mathematical problems, such as A Problem in Dynamics, composed in 1854, which begins:
An inextensible heavy chain,
Lies on a smooth horizontal plane,
An impulsive force is applied at A,
Required the initial motion of K...

Read full poem here          

This knack of knocking out a witty rhyme can be seen in his parodies satirising the work of contemporary poets. Generations of physics students learned his amusing Robert Burns spoof, Rigid Body Sings, and his take on Valentine's Day card poetry - Valentine by a Telegraph Clerk (male) to a Telegraph Clerk (female) - still delights:

The tendrils of my soul are twined
With thine, though many a mile apart.
And thine in close coiled circuits wind
Around the needle of my heart.
Constant as Daniell, strong as Grove.
Ebullient throughout its depths like Smee,
My heart puts forth its tide of love,
And all its circuits close in thee...

Read full poem here          

The poem, Brown notes, makes clever use of the electrical apparatus of the time: the Daniell battery cell provides a more constant current, a Grove cell gives greater electromotive force, and a Smee battery immerses an electrode in sulphuric acid.
It's hardly the usual stuff of love poetry, but Maxwell was famed for transforming formulae and poetic fancies alike into startling visualisations. Occasionally, he would use this talent to skewer his colleagues. Slyly imitating the dramatic lecture style of his fellow physicist John Tyndall, his Tyndallic Ode, written for Nature in 1871, begins:
I come from empyrean fires,
From microscopic spaces,
Where molecules with fierce desires,
Shiver in hot embraces.

Read full poem here          

Maxwell also found himself bemused by his more prosaic peers. "I know several men who see all nature in symbols," he confided in an 1863 letter, "and express themselves conformably whether in Quintics or Quantics, Invariants or Congruents." Two years later, thermodynamics theorist William J.M. Rankine aimed squarely at such colleagues when he wrote The Mathematician in Love:
A mathematician fell madly in love
With a lady, young, handsome, and charming:
By angles and ratios harmonic he strove
Her curves and proportions all faultless to prove.
As he scrawled hieroglyphics alarming...
"Let x denote beauty, y, manners well-bred,-
"z, Fortune,- (this last is essential),-
"Let L stand for love"- our philosopher said,-
"Then L is a function of x, y, and z,
"Of the kind which is known as potential."
"Now integrate L with respect to d t,
"(t Standing for time and persuasion);
"Then, between proper limits, 'tis easy to see,
"The definite integral Marriage must be:-
"(A very concise demonstration)."
Said he-"If the wandering course of the moon
"By Algebra can be predicted,
"The female affections must yield to it soon"-
-But the lady ran off with a dashing dragoon,
And left him amazed and afflicted.

Not all the poet scientists took their art so lightly. Mathematician and graph theory pioneer James Joseph Sylvester was passionate about verse; his biographer Karen Parshall writes that for stretches of his career, "Sylvester was just as serious about poetry as he had been about mathematics". With encouragement from his friend, the poet Matthew Arnold, he published a book on the subject: The Laws of Verse. Sylvester was immensely proud of the achievement, and even after being made Savilian professor of geometry at the University of Oxford, would sign letters as "J.J. Sylvester, author of The Laws of Verse".
His two passions would occasionally overlap at baffling moments. During his inaugural Oxford lecture, Sylvester suddenly broke into verse with To a Missing Member of a Family Group of Terms in an Algebraical Formula:
Lone and discarded one! divorced by fate
Far from thy wished-for fellows - whither art flown
Where lingerest thou in thy bereaved estate,
Like some lost star, or buried meteor stone?
Thou mindst me much of that presumptuous one
Who loth, aught less than greatest, to be great,
From Heaven's immensity fell headlong down
To live forlorn, self-centred, desolate...

Read full poem here          

Upon finishing, he simply continued lecturing his bewildered audience. The poem has its fans, though: the rock icon Patti Smith has been known to quote the first quatrain.
Despite his best efforts, Sylvester never quite succeeded in uniting poetry and mathematics. The Laws of Verse had an elaborate taxonomy that broke poetry down into "pneumatic", "linguistic" and "rhythmic" aspects - essentially, ideas, words and sounds. Out of the rhythmic aspect alone, he created qualities he called "metric", "chromatic" and "synectic" and split the latter into "phonetic syzygy", "symptosis", and "anastomosis". The resulting system, his biographer noted, was "virtually unintelligible", though this failed to curb Sylvester's enthusiasm. He also obsessed over his concept of syzygy, which used punishing consonant repetition in endless end rhymes, as seen in To Rosalind:
In Cecilia's name I find-
(Deem not thou the guess unkind)-
Celia, with a sigh combined,
Whose five letters, loose aligned.
Magic set, and recombined,
Fairest O! of lily kind,
Shall disclose to every mind,
From Far West to Orient Ind,
With each mortal thing unkinned,
Thy sweet name, dear Rosalind!
During a tenure as a professor at Johns Hopkins University, Sylvester would bore unsuspecting passers-by, reciting lengthy versions of To Rosalind that "reached four or five hundred verses", university president David Gilman later recalled. "He read his verses to many unwilling hearers, and I know that he kept the type standing for months at the printer's for additions and emendations,"
Today, some of these pieces have found new life on the internet, though many languish in university archives. The monster version of Sylvester's relentless To Rosalind, though, appears to have been lost entirely. In this case, one might be forgiven for agreeing with Thomas Gray that "Where ignorance is bliss, 'Tis folly to be wise."


  1. Read the poems in full at

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