The Mathematics Of Love

Zenia Zuraiq, I Year B.Sc Physics
Image source: http://www.en.wikipedia.org

NO! Wait, dear reader! I see you inching to click away as you read the M-word in the title! I understand your concern, but I assure you that there is very little math in this article. In fact it’s about something I came across recently that delighted both the math nerd and poetry enthusiast in me – a love poem written by a Mathematician using a fair bit of math, of course.

This wonderful amalgamation of things that seemingly don’t mix is a posthumously-published (1874) eight stanza, five line poem by Scottish mathematical physicist and engineer William Rankine (1820-1872).

Rankine’s poem The Mathematician in Love, characterizes love as, amongst other things, potential energy. It charmed more than a few mathematicians, some of whom describe the poem as “the earliest known equation of love” and a “marvelous mathematical formula”.

The poem reads as follows:

The Mathematician in Love

I
A mathematician fell madly in love
With a lady, young, handsome, and charming:
By angles and ratios harmonic he strove
Her curves and proportions all faultless to prove.
As he scrawled hieroglyphics alarming.

II
He measured with care, from the ends of a base,
The arcs which her features subtended:
Then he framed transcendental equations, to trace
The flowing outlines of her figure and face,
And thought the result very splendid

III
He studied (since music has charms for the fair)
The theory of fiddles and whistles, —
Then composed, by acoustic equations, an air,
Which, when ’twas performed, made the lady’s long hair
Stand on end, like a porcupine’s bristles.

IV
The lady loved dancing: — he therefore applied,
To the polka and waltz, an equation;
But when to rotate on his axis he tried,
His centre of gravity swayed to one side,
And he fell, by the earth’s gravitation.

V
No doubts of the fate of his suit made him pause,
For he proved, to his own satisfaction,
That the fair one returned his affection; — “because,
“As every one knows, by mechanical laws,
“Re-action is equal to action.”

VI
“Let x denote beauty, — y, manners well-bred, —
“z, Fortune, — (this last is essential), —
“Let L stand for love” — our philosopher said, —
“Then L is a function of x, y, and z,
“Of the kind which is known as potential.”

VII
“Now integrate L with respect to d t,
“(t Standing for time and persuasion);
“Then, between proper limits, ’tis easy to see,
“The definite integral Marriage must be: —
“(A very concise demonstration).”

VIII
Said he — “If the wandering course of the moon
“By Algebra can be predicted,
“The female affections must yield to it soon” —
But the lady ran off with a dashing dragoon,
And left him amazed and afflicted.

Pretty great, eh?

What I absolutely adore about this poem has nothing to do with the references to ratios and harmonics, or even the actual integration of love that Rankine carefully spells out in Stanzas VI and VII. It’s the somewhat poignant end. The titular mathematician believes that mathematics, which has been so successful in such improbable tasks like calculating the trajectory of the moon, will definitely be useful in helping him get the girl he loves. But of course, Love trumps Mathematics and his heart, as she runs off with another.

That’s how improbable and mystical Love is. I mean, sure, we can all describe Love chemically or biologically, we can talk about all the mathematical patterns it seems to follow, but in the end, the girl just runs away. And, that’s kind of beautiful in its own way. Love’s unpredictability, its absolute uncertainty is what makes it so charming.

Maybe I’m romanticizing things. Maybe someday we will formulate an equation of love. Maybe someday we might quantise love – give it its own factors and states. Maybe someday, we’ll have a theory of love.

Maybe it’ll even remain an electron cloud, full of probabilities and improbabilities, with all these fluctuations and states that we’ll never fully be able to predict, never fully be able to see.

So, I guess the real question is – does it matter? Does it matter how we see love as a scientific community, as a society? Or is the only view of love that matters your own? Because we all already have theories and predictions, equations and experiments about love in our minds. Maybe that’s all we need, each of us with our own personal equation.

At this point, of course, I’d like to note that Rankine is not science’s only contribution to the art of the love poem – I have since had the fortune to come across various other works of “scientific love poetry”. This includes a delightful work by the father of electromagnetism, James Clerk Maxwell, containing this amazing stanza, comparing love to various electrochemical cells.

Constant as Daniell, strong as Grove.
Ebullient throughout its depths like Smee,
My heart puts forth its tide of love,
And all its circuits close in thee…

So, the next time you feel that spark of “chemistry” with someone, just remember that there’s a little mathematics waiting to get into the mix.

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