‘As a poet, he’s a good mathematician,’ said the poets. ‘As a mathematician, he’s a good poet,’ said the math dudes. Perhaps they were both right, or maybe both wrong. As a student at La Trobe University, I met with indifference at best, levity at worst, from many people with whom I tried to share my maths or poetry creations. The exceptions were the people that counted, such as poet Judith Rodriguez or the maths Professor Brian Davey. These people always had new ideas and fresh approaches.
So what do I read? Two years ago I moved from Melbourne back to Canberra, and have suddenly this rich exposure to high quality Canberra poets. So, fast devoured, have been the latest and greatest from S. K. Kelen (Island Earth: New and Selected Poems and Don Juan Variations), Geoff Page (Selected Poems and Improving the News), Alan Gould (Capital), Subhash Jaireth (Yashodhara: Six Seasons Without You and his novel, After Love) and Anthony Lawrence. Then there are poems by Melinda Smith (Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call) and P. S. Cottier, whose poems are published on her website.
I enjoyed and strongly identified with Kelen’s poems. They contain supreme moments of distilled insight, which turn upon themselves. For example, the opening poem, ‘The Pilot’, goes:
You know the story.
A kamikaze pilot reincarnated
as a moth who loves candle-flames.
This is the love they write songs about.
Kelen’s keen observations spill into a reality that touches you. In his poem ‘Bird Diary’ we see this in the extract below:
These days, birds who arrive
tend to stay. Indian mynahs, rosellas
and galahs join the philosopher birds
shuffling in squares around the school oval.
I really enjoyed Geoff Page’s Selected Poems, which included poems dating way back to the 1960s, as well as recent poems. Page continues his affair with language from his earliest poems right through to recent additions in a process of refined appended thoughts over decades. In poems like ‘Debris’ and ‘The Mercies’, Page is eloquently signing off, but he is still creative and alive and productive despite self-depreciation.
Although I’ve not been one for God
I’m sure that I’ve received a mercy,
these ten past years a sort of gift,
orbiting without a care
and paid reliably in fortnights.
Poetry is important for my sense of balance and economy in communication generally. The poetic sensibility can generalise into any art or science, I’m now convinced.
Then the maths! I’ve moved my Visiting Fellowship from La Trobe Uni to ANU and I’m in touch with a new bunch of world-ranked professors in maths and physics. My 1990s PhD supervisor Professor Rodney Baxter won the 2013 Queen’s Medal. Another guy, Professor Michael Barnsley, is well known internationally for fractals, the colourful pictures they used to put on calendars; now an established field of research. When you read their papers you enter another world. Ideas in maths are like open-ended poetic phrases. You follow them some way, write them and submit them as a paper.
What am I reading in maths? A friend, Professor Jon Borwein from the University of Newcastle put out a book with four co-authors (whom I know and worship but that’s another story!) called Lattice Sums, Then and Now. You can’t just read these maths texts cover-to-cover. Inside are gems of logic and equations that give me a ‘high’. OK, for some of you that will sound absurd. But it is now known that physicists and mathematicians respond to some ‘beautiful’ equations the same way an art expert responds to a masterpiece or a musician to a wonderful symphony. Often these equations come with an exciting image that is the hinge point of the logic inside it. For example, here is a diagram from the theory of quasicrystals, which appeared in my 2006 paper, but also is related to the work of the 2011 Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry, Professor Dan Shechtman.
About a year ago I met Shechtman when he visited ANU. I showed him my paper on quasicrystals. He recognised the diagram right away but couldn’t fathom my maths.
What else? In June 2013 I became Manager of the LinkedIn Number Theory Group. It went from 300 members to 1700 members in seven months. So, my daily reading includes miscellaneous mathematics problems. Some are simple to state but hard to prove. For example, here is a magic square with a difference. Every kid at school knows that a magic square has the same sum of rows, columns and diagonals. In this case the sum is 840. Easy! Well this magic square also has the rows and column entries as well as diagonals multiply to the same number, namely 2,058,068,231,856,000.
I believe there is a likeness creatively within the arts and sciences. In my case it’s in maths and poetry. In both fields I tend to read books without even realising. It’s a bit like the coffee at your desk, that giant mug. Suddenly it’s empty. How did that happen?
Dr Geoff Campbell received a PhD in Mathematics from ANU, and has since been an Honorary Research Fellow at La Trobe University (nine years) and currently at ANU (two years). He has published many research papers in advanced and radical areas of mathematics. Before moving to Canberra he lived in Melbourne. During the 1980s he was co-chair of the Melbourne Poets Union, and was awarded a New Writers Grant in 1987. His poetry has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies, and in 2010 his book, Words in Common was published by Ódrerir Books. Geoff has also been a professional umpire for the VFL (now AFL) and was a boundary umpire in a grand final.
31 Mar 14 at 14:28
Incidentally, P.S. Cottier’s mathless blog is to be found at pscottier.com.*
(Initials do not* stand stand for Practically Spam.)
31 Mar 14 at 14:36
The initials P.S. obviously stand for punctuation stinks, to go by the egregious misuse of the asterisks in the previous comment.
02 Apr 14 at 7:24
Indeed, a very interesting man. The insight and knowledge he has is truly a blessing. Whether a “God” is part of that or not is irrelevant.
03 Apr 14 at 16:22
I find love of maths and poetry to be entirely compatible. Both have measure and meter/metre. Maths and music are often a marraiage as well.
04 Apr 14 at 14:06
There’s a great article here about this very topic, April being National Poetry Month and Mathematics Awareness Month in the US.