l l i i a a dot com

I love me some good science fiction so I've been actively working on reading the classics of the genre over the past decade, and it's always stuck in my craw that I haven't read anything by the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. I finally got around to reading his short story collection The Cyberiad last week and thought it was magnificent, especially Trurl's Electronic Bard, in which the constructor Trurl creates a machine that writes poetry. His friend and rival, the constructor Klaupacius, envious of what Trurl has done, tries to confound it by requesting it write "a love poem, lyrical, pastoral, and expressed in the language of pure mathematics. Tensor algebra mainly, with a little topology and higher calculus, if need be. But with feeling, you understand, and in the cybernetic spirit."

I loved the resulting poem, but my undergraduate degree is in creative writing—my knowledge of mathematics is almost entirely forgotten from high school and just enough for me to broadly get the jokes within. I decided that wasn't good enough, set myself a-googling (I learned more about math this past hour googling than I did in college) and came up with the annotated version of the poem you see below. I didn't bother to define some terms (I figured if I knew what they meant most everybody else interested would) and others I likely didn't pick the best definition because I didn't know any better, so please feel free to point out my mistakes and suggest better links in the comments. Otherwise, enjoy the annotated Electronic Bard's poem of love and tensor algebra:

Come, let us hasten to a higher plane
Where dyads tread the fairy fields of Venn,
Their indices bedecked from one to n
Commingled in an endless Markov chain!

Come, every frustum longs to be a cone
And every vector dreams of matrices.
Hark to the gentle gradient of the breeze:
It whispers of a more ergodic zone.

In Riemann, Hilbert or in Banach space
Let superscripts and subscripts go their ways.
Our asymptotes no longer out of phase,
We shall encounter, counting, face to face.

I'll grant thee random access to my heart,
Thou'lt tell me all the constants of thy love;
And so we two shall all love's lemmas prove,
And in our bound partition never part.

For what did Cauchy know, or Christoffel,
Or Fourier, or any Boole or Euler,
Wielding their compasses, their pens and rulers,
Of thy supernal sinusoidal spell?

Cancel me not - for what then shall remain?
Abscissas some mantissas, modules, modes,
A root or two, a torus and a node:
The inverse of my verse, a null domain.

Ellipse of bliss, converge, O lips divine!
The product of our scalars is defined!
Cyberiad draws nigh, and the skew mind
Cuts capers like a happy haversine.

I see the eigenvalue in thine eye,
I hear the tender tensor in thy sigh.
Bernoulli would have been content to die,
Had he but known such a2 cos 2 ψ!

More about Stanislaw Lem: official site, Wikipedia entry, great article from The Modern Word. If you don't read science fiction and Lem's name sounds familiar it's probably because his novel Solaris has been adaptated for the silver screen twice, most recently in 2002, directed by Steven Soderburgh and starring George Clooney.

Thanks to Ranjit for lending me the book out of his excellent personal library!

Note: this entry was originally published on my old blog at cheesedip.com (sadly, a domain I no longer own) at some point between 1998 and 2008. Only a handful out of the thousands of posts from that time period are currently on this site, though I hope to publish them here eventually.

This entry currently has 17 Comments.

Join the Yahoo group Classic Sci-Fi (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/ClassicSci-Fi/). We select and read a different SF Classic each month.

Or the new Award Winning Science Fiction and Fantasy (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/awsff/).

I also like Lem, but I like his tales of Prix the Pilot.



August 19, 2005 8:23 AM

Arthur C. Clark, I think, said that the English language Science Fiction authors were very lucky that Lem wrote in Polish, otherwise they would have all been out of business.

August 19, 2005 9:10 AM

Thanks for the post. It's something that I'd never run into before. And the Wikipedia links are exactly what I love about the web.

Are the use of "frustrum," instead of "frustum," and "Bools" instead of "Boole" in the original? Or a product of fingers moving too fast? Frustrum (which, frankly, sounds better) is such a common mistake Wikipedia redirects Frustrum links to its Frustum page.

August 19, 2005 9:45 AM

Every copy of this poem I've ever seen has a typo in the last character. The last symbol should be a ? (Psi) not ? (Phi). The typo wrecks the joke!

Did Lem originally write this in Polish? If so, I'd love to see _that_ version literally translated and footnoted.

August 19, 2005 12:00 PM


Here are translations of the poem in several languages, including the original Polish.


lia, nice annotation

August 19, 2005 1:13 PM

Doc Drang, thanks for catching frustrum & Bools, both are typos and I'll fix them in a minute.

David, the Cyberiad in my lap (Harvest/Harcourt Brace, 1985) has it ending with Phi and not Psi, but since the two copies of the poem from Graham's link (thanks for that, Graham!) both end with Psi, I'll change it to that now. Would you mind explaining the joke?

August 19, 2005 1:27 PM

re the last line - such a cause to sigh?

I've always seen it as phi as well, but that pun would only work in English

August 19, 2005 1:51 PM


August 19, 2005 1:51 PM

I admire Michael Kandel, who made Lem's wordplay wonderful when translating The Cyberiad into English. The more so when I read some of the lousy Lem translations done by other people.

August 19, 2005 2:46 PM

hey lia,

my favorite Lem character was Erg the Self-Inducting but I can't quite recall which character's favorite expression was "Tickuf!"


p.s. -how does it feel to be boing-boinged? is it as painful as being slashdotted?

August 19, 2005 3:20 PM

A useful note, that is not part of your annotation: for years I wondered what Bernoulli had to do with "a2 cos 2 ø". Then, when reading Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace (highly recommended), I realized that, what was meant was the polar equation r = a2 cos 2 ø. This is the formulat for the infinity symbol, and is often referred to as "Bernoulli's lemniscate." Now, I'm still not 100% sure what Bernoulli would have been content to die if he had seen: either the infinity of her soul, or her eyes, or something along those lines, or perhaps some other part of her shaped more like Bernoulli's leminscate :)

August 19, 2005 3:52 PM

I think boing-boinged is an honour..

August 20, 2005 7:14 AM

Awesome, I want to come and read this when I have the time to follow all the links! Thanks for posting, Lia!

August 21, 2005 7:38 AM


I'm not a mathematical know-all, but I thought you might like this poem from Towyn Mason, written a fair amount of time ago. It's a stab about the increasing amount of acronyms as a product of our technological age (even then):

Intercom in Nasakom

"Euratom!" cried the Oiccu, sly and nasa,
"I'll wftu in the iscus with my gatt."
"No! No!" the Eldo pleaded, pale with asa.
"My unctad strictly nato on comsat."

The Oiccu gave a wacy little intuc,
He raft and waved his anzac oldefo.
"Bea imf!" he eec, a smirk upon his aituc,
And smote the Eldo on his ganefo.

The Eldo drew his udi from its cern,
He tact his unicet with fearles fao.
The Oiccu swerved but could not comintern;
He fell afpro, and dying moaned, "Icao!"

The moon came up above the gasbiindo,
The air no longer vip with intercom.
A creeping icftu stirred the maphilindo
And kami was restored to Nasakom.

"O kappi gum!" the fifa sang in cento,
"O cantat till the neddy unficyp."
The laser song re-echoed through the seato,
As the Eldo radar home to unmogip.

I found the poem in “A certain world, a commonplace book’, from W.H. Auden. Funny enough one could say that this book was Boing Boing before Boing Boing existed, but then a very personal Boing Boing. A worthy read.

Geert from Brussels.

August 22, 2005 12:52 PM

Great poem !

August 25, 2005 9:07 AM

I've never been able to get through any of his novels, but I love Lem's short stories. Cyberiad is in a class by itself, but I also highly recommend you check out the two volumes of Tales of Pirix the Pilot.

October 21, 2005 11:19 PM

Here's what I found in wikipedia on Bernoulli's a^2 cos 2 phi:


As to what Bernoulli would have been content to die -- though I'm not certain -- I would say that he could be referring to the "infinity" of her eyes or soul.

I think, it's too much physical to refer this lemniscate to "some other part of her shaped."

Bernoulli was not sexual (erotic?) compared to the modern-day "people." =]

August 18, 2008 12:18 PM

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