Andrew Stacey

12th October 2023

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"There is safety in numbers" and so I count:
There are zero elephants in this room.
There is one person counting.
There are two eyes searching.
There are three … there are three … there is no three.
I have four limbs, I have five senses, I have no three.
There is no safety here.

"Don't be negative! Look on the plus side!
You have lived more, you have loved more, you have done more
Than yesterday."
I have one fewer days to live
Than yesterday.
There is no safety here.

"Be rational! Get things in proportion! Take the measure of things."
Measure the height of ambition,
The depth of love,
The weight of a sigh.
There is no safety here.

"Get real! See what's around you."
Where is there room for what matters?
The space for the imaginary?
The acceptance of the complex?
Without a place for i
There is no safety here.

There is no safety in numbers.
In the depths of infinity,
In the heart of zero,
In the division of unity,
There is no refuge for me.


The prompt for this poem was "refuge". I had no initial ideas as I couldn't think of a mathematical concept that fit with "refuge", the closest I got was "neighbourhood". Then I remembered the phrase "there's safety in numbers".

The obvious approach was to echo the sentiment of the phrase and paint Mathematics as a refuge, but I don't feel that would resonate with most people's experience. While there are some who do describe mathematics as their refuge, more probably would describe it as somewhere that they feel decidedly unsafe; where they are uncertain of what will happen next; and where they flinch at the sight of an equation.

I have at the forefront of my mind a phrase that I originally heard from Matt Parker1:

1I don't know if it originated with him, if anyone knows I'd love to know its provenance

A mathematician isn't someone who finds maths easy, it's someone who enjoys how hard it gets.

I feel that I could rephrase that in terms of refuge without changing the underlying sentiment:

A mathematician isn't someone who finds a refuge in maths, it's someone who faces down the uncertainty it brings.

So I wanted the tenor of the poem to be about the lack of refuge in mathematics. I wanted it to reflect the fact that numbers – the starting point of mathematics – are not actually "safe". They behave in strange ways, and every time you feel that you have a handle on them and that you "understand" them, something hits you for six. Whether it be a new type of number, or a strange identity, or even just that 57 still isn't prime. To often we assume we know something and that leads to complacency.

It's important to remember that dragons lie in the heart of mathematics.