Shortly after I posted the piece about the Oystercatchers Café, with my comment about its elision of science and poetry, I came across a little anecdote which reflects the “tension” between science and poetry.

So today’s post is something different, not a poem as such but a reflection on that anecdote – it still has a Teignmouth connection of course!

“Tension” may be the wrong word; what I mean is the disparate viewpoints or ways of thinking that these two disciplines adopt. Science likes structure, method, precision, solutions. Poetry sometimes has structure through stanza, metre and rhyme but often relies on the fuzziness of metaphor and the colour of language to convey ideas and provide interpretive choice of meaning.

Charles Babbage, father of the computer

Charles Babbage, father of the computer

The story concerns Charles Babbage, a scientist, polymath and the recognised father of computer through his design of the first computing machines – the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine. The Babbages lived at the Rowdens in Teignmouth though Charles Babbage moved up to London after his marriage in 1814 at St Michael’s church in Teignmouth.


The ‘Tension’? …..


Babbage once contacted the poet Alfred Tennyson in response to his poem, ‘The Vision of Sin’, first published in 1842. He was concerned about the couplet:

Every minute dies a man,
Every minute one is born.

Babbage wrote:

“I need hardly point out to you that this calculation would tend to keep the sum total of the world’s population in a state of perpetual equipoise, whereas it is a well-known fact that the said sum total is constantly on the increase. I would therefore take the liberty of suggesting that, in the next edition of your excellent poem, the erroneous calculation to which I refer should be corrected as follows:–

Every moment dies a man,
And one and a sixteenth is born.

I may add that the exact figures are 1.167, but something must, of course, be conceded to the laws of metre.”

It appears that Tennyson subsequently changed the couplet in 1850, in a strange compromise, to read:

Every moment dies a man,
Every moment one is born.

Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace

As an interesting aside Babbage himself may have had a poetic side.

Behind Babbage lay the skills of another mathematician, Ada Lovelace, who was also Byron’s daughter.

She effectively annotated the workings of Babbage’s engines and has earned the credit of being the first computer programmer.

Babbage was so impressed by her intellect and analytical skills that he called her ‘The Enchantress of Numbers.’ In 1843 he wrote of her:

Forget this world and all its troubles,
and if possible its multitudinous Charlatans
everything in short but the Enchantress of Numbers.

What a wonderful phrase – ‘The Enchantress of Numbers’. Poetry? You decide.

Want to know more?  Check out:

Charles Babbage (1) …..
Charles Babbage (2) …..
Ada Lovelace (1) …..
Ada Lovelace (2) …..



One thought on “Tension

  1. moorsidepublications

    Yes – and I agree that there is sometimes a tension between the arts in general and science. I also think that the tension almost need not exist in that they are both perspectives on thought and expression: Mathematicians use a different linguistic code to express the universe they perceive – but the great mathematicians all concede the value of imagination – creative fancy if you like – to gain insight. It gives them a different perspective. And on the flip side Bach was famously mathematical in his composition – I am sure a little research would turn up many examples…

    Also I think that the the change from “minute” to “moment” first underscores the sharp brain in Tennysons head and second neatly describes the difference: one term exact, the other not absolute but perhaps more meaningful and acceptable to human subjective conscience.

    Babbage was an interesting man and I think he should be remembered for far more than the computer – his list of inventions and innovations was extraordinary!
    Thanks for the blog – and keep up the good work!


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