Miroslav Holub – scientist and poet

Prompted by reading this post by the eclectic and diverse Vera Chok:

I’m interested in people (and groups of people or organisations) who (which) are eclectic and/or diverse, so I would probably be interested in Miroslav Holub anyway – he was a (medical) scientist and poet – but my interest in Holub predates that (conscious) interest.

When I was studying mathematics at Warwick University there was a mathematics magazine intended mostly (but not exclusively) for undergraduates, and in one issue it printed Holub’s poem “Zito the Magician”. I liked the poem so much that I bought a Penguin Modern European Poets book of his poetry. In fact, that or “Labyrinths” by Jorge Luis Borges (which I bought around the same time and either includes some poetry, or at any rate has stories so compact and full of ideas that they are almost poetry) was probably the first book of poetry I ever bought.

(Alas both these books got soaked when on a post-degree canal trip through the Midlands with mostly but not exclusively math student colleagues one night we tied up the narrow boat at a tilt, and woke up next day to find water lapping round our ankles: a bit above the waterline of the boat was the outlet of a tube intended for pumping out water – our “tilt” had put the outlet below the water surface, with unintended but predictable (if we had realised what we had done and had thought about it) consequences. But I digress.)

Medicine and poetry seem to sort of go together – for example: Keats, Miroslav Holub, Danny Abse

Rather than write a panegyric to Holub, I’ll link to two different translations of “Zito the Magician” and to a 2004 article by Andrew Motion about Holub which includes and discusses a poem by Holub.

That is (I think) the translation which I first read.
As one of the comments here points out, if you use complex numbers you can have a sine(alpha) “greater than 1”, something which the Warwick mathematics magazine also noted as a possible criticism of Holub, which at the time I sort of accepted but didn’t worry about because I liked the poem so much. But thinking about it now, there isn’t a “reasonable” order relation on the complex numbers, that is there isn’t a “reasonable” way of saying that one complex number is “bigger” than another, so – many years later – I now consider this type of criticism of Holub’s poem invalid! *

This is (I think) a translation new to me today. At first reading, and without knowing the original Czech poem, I think on balance I marginally prefer this translation?

Climbing to the edge of the abyss: Good humoured in the face of barbarity, Czech poet Miroslav Holub powerfully influenced English writers including Ted Hughes, argues Andrew Motion.

* Footnote: a book “More Random Walks in Science” has humourous articles on science and is well worth reading. In particular one item quotes Shelly’s poem “Ozymandias”, treating it as a scientific paper with footnotes! This is very funny in itself, and in one place has Shelley “bang to rights”: Shelley has the line “The lone and level sands stretch far away”, and the article comments that if it was a sandy desert it would have dunes, so it must be a stony desert. So a task for poets: change Shelley’s poem so that it is still a very good poem but is also scientifically accurate!


… Shelley’s Ozymandias (“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone/Stand in the desert…Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!…”) rewritten as the geology paper “Twin Limb-like Basalt Columns and Their Relationship to Plate Tectonics.” …

About Colin Bartlett

I'm interested in arts, mathematics, science. Suliram is a partial conflation of the names of three good actors: Ira Aldridge, Anna May Wong, and another. My intention is to use a personal experience of arts to make some points, but without being too "me me me" about it. And to follow Strunk's Elements of Style. Except that I won't always "be definite": I prefer Niels Bohr's precept that you shouldn't write clearer than you think.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Miroslav Holub – scientist and poet

  1. Vera Chok says:

    Wonderful. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s