Steve Jones: National Poetry Day: Unlock the Mathematical Secrets of Verse

Roundup: Talking About History

[Steve Jones is professor of genetics at University College London.]

Thursday is National Poetry Day, a fact that once would have been of much interest to scientists. In the 1700s several poems appeared that passed on a scientific message. The best known is The Loves of the Plants, by Erasmus Darwin, who in 1791 set out in verse an account of the sexual habits of the vegetable world. He used heroic couplets, in which the rhyme pattern is AA, BB, CC and so on (for the sensitive plant, for example, he wrote that "Weak with nice sense the chaste Mimosa stands,/ From each rude touch withdraws her timid hands;/ Oft as light clouds o'erpass the summer glade,/ Alarm'd she trembles at the moving shade"). Byron, a rather better poet, liked the form ABABABCC and in his epic Don Juan even manages to squeeze in a mention of Newton ("And this is the sole mortal who could grapple/ Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.")

Overblown as Erasmus Darwin's verses might seem nowadays, the point of poetry was pattern; to use a strict structure of rhythm and rhyme as a framework for words of passion or pedantry that would become fixed in a reader's brain. Robert Frost put it neatly when he wrote that "Poetry without rules is like tennis without a net".

Poetry, in other words, is mathematics. It is close to a particular branch of the subject known as combinatorics, the study of permutations – of how one can arrange particular groups of objects, numbers or letters according to stated laws....

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