By his fifth decade Lagrange no longer reckoned celestial mechanics. Already he'd wrestled the moon's libration, why it veils but one face to show earth, and "The Problem of Three Bodies," the lover's triangle on which teeters the earth, moon and sun. Lagrange courted equations, shunned intuition. The slip of liquids, the shove of solids he would not differentiate choosing the dry elegance of algebra over the earth's crude beauty. Fluxion he distrusted; only finite quantities spoke to him. In his version of the calculus the concept of vanishing vanished, till there remained nowhere to hide. Lagrange put down his pen. Renouncing his efforts to quantify the night, Lagrange edged into unknown variables. All of France mourned. Marie Herself Antoinette couldn't compel the sad genius to calculate. The planets were no more and no less perturbed in the slide of their orbits. Of knowing, there is no end. Or, there is an end. One curse and its opposite, also a curse. Reasons to pray are the same as reasons to forsake praying. Happily the war summoned Lagrange, duty over disgust. For the first time in years from his vast empty desk he lifted his head and from his left ear out tumbled *le système métrique.* Thus the earth's disinherited could measure, at last, their losses in tenths, and tens, and powers of ten. ____ This poem is based on the life of mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange (1736-1813). His work in many diverse fields of mathematics might have allowed him to be numbered with the greatest mathematicians of all time, had melancholy not derailed his brilliant career on several occasions. My interest in the dichotomy of the heightened rational and the irrepressible emotional was what brought about this poem. Plus I really like math. |