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Ode to Numbers

Sarah Glaz
Antrim House
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Mark Hunacek
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I’m generally not a reader of poetry, but I decided to request this slim volume of poems to review for two reasons. First, the poems were all (as one might expect from a book being reviewed in this column) related to mathematics, and I was curious to see what could come of that collaboration; second, I knew the author, Sarah Glaz, when, about 40 years ago now, we were both graduate students together at Rutgers University. Selecting this book to review turned out to be a good idea; I enjoyed reading it.

The poems here vary in length, style and tone, and cover a wide gamut of topics in mathematics, from the reverberations of Hippasus’s discovery of the irrationality of \(\sqrt2\) to the Newton-Leibniz priority dispute over calculus to a discussion of commutative rings, with lots of other stuff in between. (Glaz’s mathematical specialty is commutative algebra.) A lay reader will not only be entertained by the poems but will learn a bit of mathematics and its history in the bargain, particularly since Glaz incorporates some mathematical notes in a three-page appendix at the end of the book.

Some of the poems display a sly sense of humor. The one about Hippasus, for example (which ends with the line “Too much to lose, we heaved him overboard”), is divided into six stanzas of 1, 4, 1, 4, 2 and 1 line each, respectively — corresponding to the fact that the decimal expansion of \(\sqrt2\), to five decimal places, is 1.41421. In another poem, the number of lines in each of the stanzas are the first few Fibonacci numbers.

Until reading this book, I had no idea that mathematical poetry was even a thing, but the book inspired me to do a little googling on the subject. It turns out that there is a substantial amount of mathematical poetry, quite a lot of it contributed by Glaz. She is, for example, a co-editor of, and contributor to, a volume of poetry called Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics, as well the author of an article, published in the Journal of Mathematics and the Arts, that collects mathematically-themed poems written by herself and others, supplementing them with mathematical commentary and some pedagogical remarks. Glaz’s webpage at the University of Connecticut lists some other of her publications in the area of mathematical poetry, and MAA’s Convergence published an annotated version of her poem The Enigmatic Number e.

I have only one minor quibble about this book. I mentioned earlier that, at the end, there is a three-page collection of brief mathematical notes, referenced by pages in the text. Only some of the poems have comments referring to them, and unfortunately, there is no hint on the page where the poem is that there is a comment for that poem. So, what we have is a collection of footnotes at the end of the book, without the actual footnotes themselves alerting the reader to that fact. Given the ease with which this could have been remedied (by the simple expedient of putting footnotes 1, 2, 3, etc. after the title of the poem), it is surprising that it was not.

But, as I said, this is a quibble. Overall this is an enjoyable collection of poems, with pedagogical as well as artistic value. I am currently teaching upper-level courses in geometry and the history of mathematics; I plan on using some of these poems in both of these courses.

Mark Hunacek ( teaches mathematics at Iowa State University. 

The table of contents is not available.