Book Launch of 'An Illustrated Collection of Limericks for Engineers and Physicists' by Annraoi de Paor

Newman House, St Stephen's Green, Dublin 2

14 November 2013

Good evening,

What a pleasure to be in Newman House and what an honour to launch this book.

Poetry and Science - for the third time this year, I’m reminded of the symbiosis between these two.

  • In March, Trinity elected as Pro-Chancellor, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, famous, of course, for her discovery of pulsars, but also as co-editor of an anthology of poems on astronomy- with the rather good title of Dark Matter.
  • Then, last month, I launched A Mystic Dream of 4, which is a book of sonnets by Professor Iggy McGovern on the life and work of William Rowan Hamilton. Iggy McGovern is a Fellow Emeritus of Physics - and like Hamilton himself - a Trinity poet-scientist.

And now comes this really wonderful book – a collection of limericks for engineers and physicists, by a UCD poet-engineer.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Professor Annraoi de Paor for many years. We’re both bioengineers - he is one of the pioneers, if not indeed the pioneer, in this field in Ireland. As teachers of this subject we both faced the challenge of trying to inculcate engineering and science concepts into students. He hit upon the brilliant – but difficult, I couldn’t do it – idea of rhyming out the great principles.

Why the limerick form? Well, Professor de Paor quotes from an essay by the American author and broadcaster, Clinton Fadiman:

“There are few poetical forms that can boast the Limerick’s perfection. It has progression, development, variety, speed, climax and high mnemonic value.”

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Annraoi is also a patriot, in the best and most noble sense of that word, so I believe he was also motivated by the fact that the limerick is an indigenous verse form. He includes in his introduction a brief and illuminating history, in which he traces the limerick back to that city, and to two 18th century Irish poets.

The first limericks were likely written in Irish – which is something I didn’t know.

Since then, limericks have been put to many uses, but Annraoi’s particular use is surely a first. He has written 117 limericks to encapsulate and illuminate key scientific principles and discoveries, from the very famous, such as Pythagorus’ Square of the Hypotenuse equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides, and Einstein’s E = mc² and Walton’s Splitting the Atom, to the more abstruse - like Partial Fraction Expansion, Dirac Delta Function, and the Niquist Stability Criterion.

Professor de Paor’s limericks are unique in that they don’t just contain words, but also signs, roots, and equations. I’ll give you an example.

Here he is on the Pendulum test:

“In the Pendulum Test, with some care
Succeeding upswings you compare
The log dec. in theta,
Is twice pi by zeta
O’er root of one less zeta squared.”

What a perfect mnemonic.

I am, of course, delighted to see several Trinity alumni make an appearance:

  • William Rowan Hamilton,
  • George Francis FitzGerald,
  • Ernest Walton, and, surprisingly,
  • Bram Stoker.

But, as a mechanical engineer, I have to say that my favourite limerick here is ‘Bernoulli’s equation’ which explains the lift in an aerofoil.

Bernoulli said “h change being small”
v up means that p has to fall.”
So - aerofoils function!
The Wrights had the gumption
To prove it. Let’s hope we don’t stall!

What I love about this book is that it presents principles which are familiar to me - and to anyone who has taught maths, science or engineering – but Annraoi makes us see them in a new light. By finding the right rhymes and fitting them into metre, he has made these principles fresh, so that they return to us with something of the zest and enthusiasm of their initial discovery. And they return to us in full colour and illustration. The design and layout of this book are marvellous. The cartoons by Jane Courtney are daring and witty, and intrinsic to the text.

Annraoi has cunningly referenced the great figures in limerick-writing and in the poetry of mathematics - or should that be the mathematics of poetry? By putting in ‘snarks’ and ‘tweedle dum and tweedle dee’ and ‘the owl and the pussy-cat’, he carries us to the zany, frenetic, crazy-rational worlds of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear – and this sense is strengthened by the illustrations, which belong to the worlds of children’s books and satirical magazines.

There is also mention of Captain Kirk and Bugs Bunny, and beside these international figures, Annraoi gives the book local flavour. We read about Santry and Dun Laoghaire and ‘bosh and boloney’, - my favourite though is that Pythagoras’ Theorem is named, unforgettably:….. ‘the Ould Triangle’.

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A friend involved in publishing has told me  about a think called ‘the Schott factor’ – this is in reference to the book Schott’s Miscellany, which became the surprise Christmas bestseller when it was published a decade ago. The following Christmas the surprise bestseller was a book by Lynne Truss you’ll also know, called Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Both books are quirky and useful, contain information that isn’t otherwise easily come by, and are neatly-sized and beautifully designed.

‘The Schott Factor’ refers to the efforts of publishers to replicate the success of these two books and produce the quirky, stylish Christmas bestseller. This isn’t easy to do - the original bookswere labours of love, not cynical advertisers ploys.

Annraoi de Paor’s and Jane Courcey’s Illustrated Collection of Limericks is obviously going to be bought by science and engineering students, not just in Ireland, but all round the world.

But such is the charm of this book that I predict it will also have a ‘break-out’ success and may indeed be this year’s Schott’s Miscellany. Certainly I intend to be filling a few stockings with it this year, and I strongly urge you all to do the same.

After reading, you will probably be inspired to write your own limericks. I was, and I’ll close now with mine now. It’s neither as clever nor as useful as Annraoi’s, but I never thought I’d write a poem of any description, so in that sense it’s a surprising achievement. Annraoi’s book is all about getting in touch with the fun of mathematics, and the madness of physics, and with our own child-like sense of wonder. I know Annraoi will be glad it tempted me into rhyming, and I wish the same for all of you. Here’s my effort which is in the preface to the book:

I’m delighted to preface this book,
It’s a wonderful thing, have a look,
You’ll find an equation,
For every occasion,
And learn them off, easy, good luck!

Thank you!

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