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The Invention of Fractions

God himself made the whole numbers: everything else is the work of man.
Quote from Leopold Kronnecker

God created the whole numbers:
the first born, the seventh seal,
Ten Commandments etched in stone,
the Twelve Tribes of Israel
Ten we've already lost
forty days and forty nights,
Saul's ten thousand and David's ten thousand.
'Be of one heart and one mind'
the whole numbers, the counting numbers.

It took humankind to need less than this;
to invent fractions, percentages, decimals.
Only humankind could need the concepts
of splintering and dividing,
of things lost or broken,
of settling for the part instead of the whole.

Only humankind could find the whole numbers,
infinite as they are, to be wanting;
though given a limitless supply,
we still had no way
to measure what we keep
in our many-chambered hearts.

This poem is by the award-winning Jessica Goodfellow, author of the recent "chapbook" of poetry A Pilgrim's Guide to Chaos in the Heartland (Concrete Wolf/Frost Heaves Press, 2006). A former mathematics teacher, Goodfellow now focuses on writing poetry...though constantly weaving mathematical, scientific, philosophical, and religious themes throughout her poems.

As part of her process for generating poetic thoughts, Goodfellow starts by writing down "all the concepts on a math theme that I thought had the possibility of being forged into a poem, then, when I had a subject in mind, I would look at the list and invariably one mathematical or scientific concept would fit with it." For example, in a metaphysical meditation on the concept of zero, Goodfellow writes:

In the time before zeros
merchants marked nothing with nothing
leaving spaces to show where something was missing
But what shape was the space?

For more about Jessica Goodfellow and her poetry, consider Barbara Ellis' article "From Psi to Poetry" or this week's quote.