23
$\begingroup$

I read once a quote by a mathematician (or scientist) who was also a poet and it was something similar to:

As a mathematician I try to make complicated things obvious, as a poet I try to make obvious things complicated,

but I can't find it online or remember who said it. Does anyone know? Or if you know a similar quote I would really appreciate your help. Thank you

$\endgroup$
4
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ It rings a bell,but I can't place it. But if you like poet-mathematicians, check out Piet Hein. $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Aug 15, 2017 at 9:57
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if this question is on topic $\endgroup$ Aug 15, 2017 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure that "make obvious things complicated" is a good description of what a poet does. Perhaps "make obvious things strange" would be better. $\endgroup$ Aug 16, 2017 at 1:13
  • $\begingroup$ Am I the only one who feels like mathematicians have a habit of making simple concepts insanely complicated? (not saying they don't have their reasons for it, but that's beside my point) $\endgroup$
    – user541686
    Aug 16, 2017 at 9:33

4 Answers 4

30
$\begingroup$

Also, a similar quote is attributed to Paul Dirac (criticising Oppenheimer's interest in poetry):

"The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way. The two are incompatible."

$\endgroup$
3
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ citation needed? $\endgroup$
    – LarsH
    Aug 16, 2017 at 2:08
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @LarsH, see page 258 of Dirac's biography $\endgroup$
    – sch
    Aug 16, 2017 at 10:14
  • $\begingroup$ @sch But what is the biography's source? $\endgroup$ Sep 8, 2019 at 12:56
16
$\begingroup$

You are probably thinking of J. Robert Oppenheimer quoting Paul Dirac in the first paragraph of an article entitled "The Age of Science 1900-1950", published in the September 1950 issue:

One evening more than 20 years ago Dirac, who was in Göttingen working on his quantum theory of radiation, took me to task with characteristic gentleness. "I understand," he said, "that you are writing poetry as well as working at physics. I do not see how you can do both. In science one tries to say some­ thing that no one knew before in a way that everyone can understand. Whereas in poetry ..."

The 10 reports here, to which these words may serve as introduction, do indeed attest that science says things that no one knew before in a way we can all understand.

Oppenheimer had published poems in the Harvard student literary magazine Hound & Horn, including one from 1928 called "Crossing" inspired by his time in the desert of New Mexico.

$\endgroup$
1
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ note also Hilbert on math vs poetry: Good, he did not have enough imagination to become a mathematician.Upon hearing that one of his students had dropped out to study poetry, as quoted in [books.google.com/?id=nnpChqstvg0C&pg=PA151 The Universal Book of Mathematics (2004) by David J. Darling, p. 151 $\endgroup$
    – Gnudiff
    Aug 15, 2017 at 22:01
14
$\begingroup$

A similar quote is usually attributed to the mathematician Stan Gudder (U. of Denver):

"The essence of mathematics is not to make simple things complicated, but to make complicated things simple."

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Also a quote is attributed to Sofia Kovalevskaya:

It is impossible to be a mathematician without being a poet in soul.” — Sofia Kovalevskaya

Also this article Mathematicians and Poets is very intersting.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.