One of Peter Shor's poems was published in The Mathematical Intelligencer. It's called "Addicted to Proof" and it's a short (16-line) poem about a mathematician who won the Abel Prize for a result in number theory that he proved aged 40, but now gets laughed at by his colleagues for claiming he's proved the Goldbach conjecture. A note from the author adds that:

On reading this poem, you may believe that you can identify the person who inspired it. However, you are likely to be only partly right—I had more than one person in mind when I wrote it.

This made me curious. There are a lot of quite specific details in the poem, but I don't know how many of them fit to real individuals. I can think of one obvious candidate as inspiration behind this poem, but that's definitely not the end of the story as the author's explicitly said there's more than one.

Is it possible to figure out which scientists inspired this poem?


1 Answer 1



In this poem, Shor faces and resoundingly overcomes his fear that his best poetry is behind him. The "scientist" who inspired the poem is Shor himself.


Peter Shor's limericks, sonnets, nature poems, and philosophical verses are justly celebrated for their keen eye, deft touch, formal discipline, and deep insight. Denizens of Literature Stack Exchange also know him as a scholar, chiefly of Tagore; a prosodist; a close reader of great acumen; a translator; a literary historian; and a grammarian.

While literature is the governing pursuit of his life, the sad fact remains that poetry is unremunerative. Even a poet of Shor's distinction needs a day job. Luckily, if somewhat surprisingly, this great man of letters maintains an active interest in the physical and applied sciences. He has parlayed this into a sideline as a mathematics teacher at a small liberal arts college in a New England suburb. I forget which one precisely, but I would hazard Wellesley. In any case, being a man of integrity, Shor undertakes his academic responsibilities with at least as much rigor (though understandably not as much passion) as he does his literary vocation, with the result that he is no mere dilettante in his secondary field; indeed, his achievements therein have garnered some measure of respectability.

This poem reflects on his dual identity as poet and mathematician, and expresses his fear that the intellectual and physical energy that have sustained him through his youthful achievements may be dwindling. The first stanza itself contains clues that the subject of the poem is Shor himself, rather thinly disguised. Like the unnamed hero, Shor is "quite famous" and has won a prestigious award at the age of forty. The opening lines of the second stanza reinforce this identification. Judging by his poems, he is no doubt an engaging and effective teacher, since he communicates complex ideas with clarity and wit. Besides, he has been granted tenure, an honor typically granted only to those with demonstrated excellence in teaching. So one can safely assume "the students love his classes." Also, his ongoing contributions here at LitSE attest that "his mind seems sound." I shall refrain from lengthy exegetics over the well-chosen word "seems", except to note that it puts on display Shor's unerring sense for the mot juste.

The "But" in line six announces the volta. Shor presents himself as losing his ability to mathemate. Given that Shor continues to win important prizes in his ancillary pursuit, we can dismiss all this talk of innumeracy as a red herring. The true anxiety here concerns his poetic output. The theme of writer's block or the loss of poetic inspiration has engaged ageing poets all over the globe, from Yeats ("The Circle Animal's Desertion") to B R Tambe (मधु मागशि माझ्या सख्या, परि). Shor takes up their mantle, presenting himself as a Casaubon-like figure, insisting to anyone who will listen that his magnum opus is yet to come, while he is as well aware as his listener that the epic will never be written.

The poignant last stanza, with its talk of "addiction" and "proof", suggests that the poet is considering turning to alcohol. If strong drink does not unleash his creativity, it might at least drown his sorrows. The last two lines encapsulate both a sense of having a unique message to communicate, and despair at one's ability to communicate it. They are truly heartbreaking. However, there is also a sense of hope, because the lines suggest that in fact the poet's diagnosis is wrong. Up to these concluding lines, the poet has been lamenting his own loss of creativity. But here, there is a hint that in fact the poet's vision is intact. It is the readers who are at fault, because their narrow outlook is what keeps them from being able to understand the poet's message.

The word "conviction" is key here. To what does it refer? On the surface, obviously to the poet's unshakeable belief. But it also points to the poet's having been convicted. The unsympathetic "colleagues," i.e., the listeners or readers, condemn the poet for insisting on his beliefs, but their finding him guilty of delusion or senility might just as well indicate their own limitations. Both the poet and his interlocutors claim to be right, and claim the other party is wrong. But as Shor reminds us, "it doesn't matter if you're right or wrong," because poetic truth is not a matter of correctness.

"Addicted to Proof" could easily have been just another self-indulgent rant from a drunken versifier, bemoaning the depradations of his advancing years. But as the above analysis shows, it is poetry of the highest order. The poem is supremely ironic. He is looking ahead to his declining years, worried that perhaps his inspiration will flag, and that his poetry will no longer be as well received as before. Yet this poem itself is testimony that the worries are misplaced. It shows Shor grappling with his fears and defiantly dealing them a knockout blow.

The irony extends to the "Notes" Shor appended to the poem at first publication. As Eliot did in The Waste Land, Shor extends a tongue-in-cheek simulacrum of apologia and scholarly apparatus to (mis)guide his readers. He identifies with the poem's subject: "if I ever start acting this way, please accept this poem as my apology in advance." He promptly rescinds this identification: "you may believe that you can identify the person who inspiried it. However, you are likely to be only partly right." Since the poem itself tells us that "it doesn't matter if you're right or wrong," the mischievous intent here is clear. But there is also an acknowledgment that any reading of a poem can be no more than "partly right," since no single reading can exhaust the meaning of a poem, particularly not one as richly allusive and superbly crafted as this.

Finally, Shor says "I had more than one person in mind when I wrote it." Here at last is the unvarnished truth, for he has in mind the entire poetic tradition: poets like Yeats and Tambe, his dual identity as poet and mathematician, the distinction between autobiographical self and poetic persona, are the multiple figures (the mathematical allusion is intentional) Shor dazzles before our eyes.

In conclusion, it is worth noting that this poem might well epitomize all of Shor's poetic output. His earlier poems have earned him the Gödel award, proof of his achievement in self-referentiality. Further, arithmetic has been a recurrent theme in his work. Like Pope, he could claim, "I lisped in numbers, for the numbers came." These are the two most salient features of Shor's poetry, and no other poem of his as thoroughly, completely, and effectively puts the "self" in self-reflexivity and the "math" in polymath.

  • 1
    Did you mean “inability to communicate it”? (Sixth-to-last paragraph.)
    – Alex
    Jan 25 at 13:35

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