An Ode to the Number Pi by Nobel-Winning Polish Poet Wisława Szymborska
By Maria Popova
I am thinking about time this morning — about how it expands and contracts in the open fist of memory, about how the same duration can feel like a blink or incline toward the infinite, or even do both at once. Eleven years ago today, Brain Pickings began — birthed by what feels like another self, one that was once myself but no longer is and never again will be, and yet tethered to who I am today by some invisible thread of personal sensibility woven by and of time. As I look back on my most important learnings from the first decade, I am thinking of Simone de Beauvoir and her meditation on how chance and choice make us who we are. I am thinking of Borges and his sublime refutation of time. But, above all, I am thinking of a poem by one of my favorite poets, the Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska (July 2, 1923–February 1, 2012), about my favorite number, pi — an ode to the most precise language of the universe, mathematics, in the most precise language on Earth, poetry.
When I read the poem at The Universe in Verse, I prefaced it with a few words about my lifelong love of pi as both an anchor of reality and a counterpoint to certainty. In pi resides a reminder that despite the rigor and devotion with which we may map reality, our maps are still maps — incomplete representational models that always leave more to map, more to fathom, because the selfsame forces that made the universe also made the figuring instrument with which we try to comprehend it.
by Wisława Szymborska
The admirable number pi:
three point one four one.
All the following digits are also initial,
five nine two because it never ends.
It can’t be comprehended six five three five at a glance,
eight nine by calculation,
seven nine or imagination,
not even three two three eight by wit, that is, by comparison
four six to anything else
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth calls it quits at about forty feet.
Likewise, snakes of myth and legend, though they may hold out a bit longer.
The pageant of digits comprising the number pi
doesn’t stop at the page’s edge.
It goes on across the table, through the air,
over a wall, a leaf, a bird’s nest, clouds, straight into the sky,
through all the bottomless, bloated heavens.
Oh how brief — a mouse tail, a pigtail — is the tail of a comet!
How feeble the star’s ray, bent by bumping up against space!
While here we have two three fifteen three hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size the year
nineteen hundred and seventy-three the sixth floor
the number of inhabitants sixty-five cents
hip measurement two fingers a charade, a code,
in which we find hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert
alongside ladies and gentlemen, no cause for alarm,
as well as heaven and earth shall pass away,
but not the number pi, oh no, nothing doing,
it keeps right on with its rather remarkable five,
its uncommonly fine eight,
its far from final seven,
nudging, always nudging a sluggish eternity
“Pi” appears in Szymborska’s indispensable Map: Collected and Last Poems (public library), which also gave us her masterpieces “Life-While-You-Wait” and “Possibilities.” Complement it with Szymborska on how our certitudes keep us small, why we read, and the importance of being scared.
For more highlights from The Universe in Verse, savor astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy, Amanda Palmer’s reading of Neil Gaiman’s feminist poem about science, poet Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Rosanne Cash’s reading of Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, playwright Sarah Jones’s chorus-of-humanity tribute to Jane Goodall, and poet Elizabeth Alexander’s stunning cautionary poem about the misuses of science — or watch the complete show for a two-hour serenade to science and the transformative power of poetry.
Published October 23, 2017