Math and Poetry Link at RIT—Unique Class at Forefront of Teaching

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Gallileo was a poet…Lewis Carroll was a mathematician…Emily Dickinson wrote poetry about mathematics.

What do math and poetry have in common? A lot, according to RIT’s Marcia Birken, professor of mathematics, and Anne Coon, professor of language and literature. The two professors team-teach Analogy, Mathematics and Poetry, a unique pilot class offered this quarter that explores analogy as the "glue" which links math and poetry.

Coincidentally, April is national poetry month and national mathematics awareness month, another thing the two disciplines have in common, Birken notes.

Both math and poetry use analogy for explanation, expression, description, discovery and invention. Coon points out that the invention of the telescope, for instance, gave scientists and poets a new perspective of their world. And underlying concepts fundamental to both disciplines, such as patterns and symmetry, proof and contradiction and infinity give the class many comparisons to consider.

The course grew from the Birken’s and Coon’s 17-year collaboration and their numerous joint publications, conference presentations, lectures and workshops on poetry and mathematics. Last summer the professors presented a paper in Norway from which the pilot class was directly modeled.

Funding for the research and development of this course came from three RIT grants—the College of Liberal Arts Faculty Evaluation and Development Grant, the College of Science Faculty Evaluation and Development Grant and the Provost Innovation Grant.

Birken and Coon are writing a book about the role of analogy in mathematics and poetry, and the class they developed. To their delight, RIT students are also interested in making the connection between science and English. Enrollment for the course quickly drew more than 30 students—surprising for a class not listed in the academic catalog—with a large show of interest from computer science and engineering majors.

PHOTO OPP: On April 19, students from the class will hang a timeline on the walls of the second floor of the Gosnell Building charting worldwide developments in mathematics and poetry throughout history and the influence between individual mathematicians and poets. A poster-session and discussion will be held from 4:30 to 6 p.m.