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March 14: A Critique

by on 22 May 2020

Lemniscatory Diversions

March 14

by Anne Warrington

A Critique by Quentin Weiver

Infinity: now there’s a big thing. This thing called infinity has troubled philosophers and mathematicians since at least classical times.

Anaximander, in the sixth century BC was pondering the idea of ἄπειρον, an endless space without bounds that existed before the world began and will last for ever. Two centuries later Aristotle was having a field day with the concept of infinity, arguing effectively that whatever number one can imagine, there is always a bigger one. It was part of the staple diet of mediaeval philosophers, and Wittgenstein was arguing the complexities of the subject even to his death in 1951.

March 14 Time Vortex

Early Greek mathematicians’ treatment of infinity was a little circumspect, preferring to regard it as a philosophical notion. They did, however, rigorously study infinite processes, which laid the foundations for those giants of 18th century mathematics, Newton and Leibnitz, to develop the calculus, which in turn relies on the convergence of infinite series.

Artists, Giotto in the 14th century to Escher 20th century being good examples, love to try to depict infinity, and naturally poets adore such an ineffable and transcendent concept. William Blake in his Auguries of Innocence ponders an ultimate truth in seeking to “Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour”.

March Escher-Relativity Crop

Now, of course, the infinite infinity is God. The three attributes of God, omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence imply infinity. Christian tradition, the well-rehearsed Ontological Argument forms the basis of its theology. In 1078 St Anselm, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury, defined God as “a being than which no greater can be conceived”.

So we come to Anne Warrington’s piece March 14. It’s theme of infinity brings together theology and mathematics, through the medium of poetry. If that sounds daunting and dry, then STOP: it is not! March 14 brings these approaches together, with a very light touch and a huge dollop of humour.

We are taken right back to the third book Genesis. We are in the Garden of Eden. God has made man and woman from, and to become, one flesh. So far so good. Then God has given them the option of free will: whoops! They have eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A life of everlasting perfect bliss has been swopped for one of toil and pain. Sinful, yes, but exciting, yes and here we enter the poem.

God is mightily angry. Alliteratively He comes “Whooshing out great gusts of wind”, while “Adam and Eve shivered and shook”. Oh, dear!

What do Adam and Eve do?   Typical of couples hither hereafter, they bicker. I told you so. It was all your fault. Eventually they wear themselves out with arguing and fall asleep.

When they wake, all is still and pleasant again. They think they have been forgiven, but God is going to put them to the test. What could be more seductive than freshly cooking hot food?  The “hot piecrust” holds delights, “Cinnamon! Nutmeg! Sugar! Apples!” My, this is sugar and spice and all things nice. Warrington’s imagery goes straight to the taste-buds.

BUT, God has a Tantalean punishment for them. Eve is “about to bite into the pie”, then comes God’s Big But, “You must first figure out the circumference of that pie / Calculating to the very last digit of pi.” Adam gets cocky: “Easy, peasy!” he whispers like a petulant schoolboy. Tantalus was chained in a shallow clear lake underneath a fruit tree, but the fruit was always just out of reach and the water always receded if he tried take a drink. Here Adam and Eve have goodness of God’s grace, but they cannot enjoy it.

March Squaring-The-Circle

Why? Squaring the circle, the problem of constructing a square with the same area as a given circle, using geometry, in effect moving compass and ruler, taxed the brains of the ancient Greek mathematicians. It was not until 1882 that the challenge was demonstrated to be impossible.

In his Paradisio Dante wrote:
“As the geometer his mind applies
To square the circle, nor for all his wit
Finds the right formula, howe’er he tries …”
Dante understood that squaring the circle was a task beyond human capability, just as he or any human mind lacked the ability to comprehend God’s Paradise.

Lewis Carroll of Alice fame was a polymath and apart from writing, he was not only an Oxford mathematics don, but was also a deacon in the Church of England. His view echoed Dante; he said that the book was most keen to write was Plain Facts for Circle-Squarers, to debunk quack circle-squaring theorists.

Mathematicians will explain that the impossibility of squaring the circle is because pi is an irrational number and a complex number. It cannot be written as a fraction. When we were told in school that it was 22/7, that was only an approximation. Pi is an infinite series of such fractions and in decimal form never comes to an end and never recurs. Pi in this respect tends to infinity.

Both Leibnitz and Newton in the 1660’s each discovered a formula to calculate pi. It involves continually adding and subtracting smaller and smaller fractions, but you have to do this to infinity. Pull out earlier and you only have an approximation. But in March 14 God wants the figure “to the very last digit”. And Adam did not have access to the formulae.

True to the Bible, Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake and God blames them all. God though is merciful and does not finish with them all there and then. They are given life, but at a price. The snake (a rattlesnake in the land of Cush?) must crawl on its belly and forever be reproachful to the world, so that it can continue as the devil to cause sin that humans can contrast against the good, which they could have had in full in the Garden of Eden. Eve will give forth children so that humankind can continue, but giving birth and bringing up these children will not be easy. Adam is condemned to labour to sustain himself and his wife and his children for ever.

In March 14, Adam’s burdensome toil is subsumed into the impossible task of taking the calculation of pi to infinity. But he has the knowledge: it is a pie whose circle he needs to square, but it an apple pie and the apple implies knowledge bought at a price.

March Infinite Pi

Theologically sound, mathematically sound, poetically teasing.

But what of the title, a date, in trans-Atlantic (or newspaper) format? A further clue might have been the, I assume, the year 1592. 3.14 1592 might have been a long time ago, but it is not forever.

Quentin Weiver
May 2020

Images by Raphael (public domain), M.C. Eschler and Germán Martínez

From → Poems, Poetry Preview

One Comment
  1. celiabard permalink

    This review makes such interesting reading. The in-depth references to theology, mathematics and philosophy in relationship to the poem were thought provoking and added an additional dimension to the poem.

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