A Poetic Route to Mathematics

Finding a way to connect mathematics with the interests of people who aren’t necessarily mathematically inclined is one of the challenges of speaking to a general audience.

In a public lecture earlier this year at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, mathematician Katherine Socha chose a novel approach, using the lines and images of a poem by E.E. Cummings as starting points for various mathematical excursions. Her hope was to show that mathematics is more than just numbers and equations, just as poems are more than merely letters of the alphabet and words.

Socha is the director of education policy at Math for America and has an extensive background in presenting mathematics to a wide variety of audiences. She received the 2008 Lester R. Ford Award for Expository Excellence for her article “Circles in Circles: Creating a Mathematical Model of Surface Water Waves,” published in the American Mathematical Monthly (see “Waves of a Sea Battle“).

In 2011, Socha presented an MAA invited address at the Joint Mathematics Meetings (JMM) in New Orleans and titled her talk “Sea Battles, Benjamin Franklin’s Oil Lamp, and Jellybellies.” With Barry Cipra, she wrote the 2001 Mathematics Awareness Month essay “Mathematics and the Ocean.” She co-directed the “WhyDoMath” project for the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM).

For her public presentation at Westminster, Socha chose one of her favorite poems as her launching pad: “maggie and milly and molly and may,” composed in 1956 by E.E. Cummings. The short poem evokes an impressionistic visit to the seashore.

For Socha, the beach brings to mind water waves (a significant part of her doctoral thesis), but she doesn’t dwell on this aspect. Instead, she follows up a reference to a seashell in the second stanza to talk about the elegant spirals of certain shells and the sounds you hear when you cup a shell to your ear (oscillations, fundamental frequencies, overtones, and more).

A five-fingered “stranded star” in the third stanza leads into a discussion of symmetry, “magical” patterns that arise out of mathematical necessity, and a recipe for folding and cutting a piece of paper to produce a five-pointed star. A riff on “blowing bubbles” wanders into optimization problems. The mathematics and symmetry of animal gaits comes out of “a horrible thing which raced sideways” in the fourth stanza (see Fearful Symmetry: Is God a Geometer? by Ian Stewart and Martin Golubitsky).

References to symmetry, in a variety of contexts, abound throughout her talk, from the notion of infinity to the graceful crowns of milk drop splashes and even the symmetry-breaking of crop circles.

“It’s a big universe out there, and we are challenged by it to use every possible lens and tool we have in order to understand it without appealing to superstition,” Socha concludes. “Poetry, physics, music, mathematics . . . these all help us deepen our understanding of our world and ourselves.”

At the upcoming 2013 JMM in San Diego, Socha will be speaking on Coursework in Applied and Computational Mathematics at the High School Level, one of the presentations in the SIAM minisymposium on “Modeling Across the Curriculum: Bringing Relevance to Middle, High School and Early Undergraduate Math Experiences.” In another session, she will describe career options for those interested in mathematics policy.