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Forms of Imagination

Poet Alice Fulton

Oct. 20, 2009 – The University of Utah will hold its fifth Utah Symposium in Science and Literature during Nov. 5-7. It will feature a poet, a composer and a mathematician discussing how their thinking is influenced by the different media they use to express their imaginations.

The symposium – titled “Mathematics, Language and Imagination” – will be keynoted by speakers Alice Fulton, a poet and English professor at Cornell University; Fred Lerdahl, a musical composition professor at Columbia University; and Barry Mazur, a mathematics professor at Harvard University.

“The form and language your thinking takes – whether poetic, musical or mathematical – necessarily helps to shape the thinking you do,” says Katharine Coles, a symposium organizer and University of Utah professor of English.

“So the question is: what are the real, consequential differences?” says Coles, who also is Utah’s state poet laureate. “How is a musical imagination different from a mathematical one or a poetic one? And what are the consequences of those differences both for the person doing the imagining and for the person who encounters the product of that imagining?”

The symposium is free and open to the public, but space is limited – especially for the keynote lectures and for the Friday, Nov. 6 live broadcast of a discussion by all three keynote speakers. So people interested in attending are asked to register at where more information and updates also will be available.

The symposium – which is designed to foster communication across different academic disciplines – is supported by several University of Utah entities, including the Office of the Vice President for Research, College of Humanities, Department of English, Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute, Utah Museum of Natural History, KUER-FM 90.1 and the School of Music. Other supporters include the Utah Humanities Council, King’s English Bookshop, Utah Arts Council and Salt Lake County Zoo, Arts and Parks Program. The symposium schedule follows:

Thursday, Nov. 5

  • 7 p.m. – Keynote by Alice Fulton, “The Measure Rolling on the Floor: Poetry, Math, Music, and Imagination,” auditorium, Salt Lake City Public Library main downtown library. [Media note: The title’s talk is correct as written.]

    Fulton’s first fiction collection, “The Nightingales of Troy: Connected Stories,” was published in 2008. Her poetry books include “Cascade Experiment: Selected Poems,” “Felt” (which won the 2002 Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry), “Sensual Math,” “Powers of Congress,” “Palladium” and “Dance Script with Electric Ballerina.” She has received several fellowships, including the so-called “genius award” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Her work has been included in five editions of “The Best American Poetry” series and in publications such as The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New Republic and The Atlantic Monthly.

Friday, Nov. 6

  • 9:30 a.m. – Panel discussion, “The Aim is Song: Music, Words, Equations,” room 1120 Marriott Library. Moderated by University of Utah mathematician Fred Adler, with University of Utah faculty panelists Steve Roens, associate professor of music composition; Jackie Osherow, professor of English; and Aaron Bertram, professor and chair of mathematics.

    This panel will explore some of the challenges of interacting with musical language. Are songs really just words set to music? Or are they music set to words? Are mathematicians uniquely gifted with insight into music because they can think without words?

  • 9:30 a.m. – Panel discussion, “The Rest is Noise: Language vs. Communication, Room 1170, Marriott Library. Moderated by University of Utah English Professor Craig Dworkin, with panelists Phillip Bimstein, composer and former mayor of Springdale, Utah; University of Utah biology Professor Franz Goller; and Jon Wilkins, poet and population geneticist from the Santa Fe Institute.

    This panel will discuss how communication takes place through sound, but with the line between meaningful sound and noise often seemingly blurred. What is actually communicated by sound? Do birds really “speak” to each other? Does noise have a place in music or literature?

  • 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. – Live broadcast on KUER-FM 90.1, Salt Lake City, “The Shape of Imagination,” panel discussion by keynoters Alice Fulton, Fred Lerdahl and Barry Mazur, Gould Auditorium, Marriott Library. Radio West host Doug Fabrizio and members of the radio and live audiences will ask the symposium’s keynoters how their chosen media shape both their imaginations and the ways in which they express what they imagine.
  • 1:30 p.m. – Panel discussion, “The Body Speaks: The Role of Gesture in Teaching, Art and Dance,” room 1120, Marriott Library. Moderated by University of Utah musician Steve Roens, with panelists Gordan Savin, University of Utah professor of mathematics; Curtis LeBaron, Brigham Young University professor of organizational leadership and strategy; and poet Alex Caldiero, artist in residence at Utah Valley University.

    This panel will examine how physical gestures contribute to communication. How do we think and communicate with our hands and bodies? Is the great teacher or artist really a dancer?

  • 1:30 p.m. – Panel discussion, “The Code Talkers,” room 1170, Marriott Library. Moderated by University of Utah psychologist Monisha Pasupathi, with faculty panelists Lynn Jorde, professor and chair of human genetics; Craig Dworkin, professor of English; and George Cassiday, professor of physics.

    This panel will consider how codes function within language. Are poetry, mathematics and genetics really codes, or merely ways to communicate to which some people are not privy? Could we actually manage to communicate with aliens?

  • 5 p.m. – Reception, The Leonardo (the old Salt Lake City Public Library, located due south of the current main downtown library).
  • 7 p.m. – Keynote by Barry Mazur, “The Language of Explanation,” auditorium, Salt Lake City Public Library, main downtown library.

    Mazur, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, has received several honors, including the Veblen Prize in geometry and the Cole Prize in number theory from the American Mathematical Society. He was also awarded the 2000 Leroy P. Steele Prize for Seminal Contribution to Research. He is the author of “Imagining Numbers (particularly the square root of minus fifteen).”

Saturday, Nov. 7

  • 10 a.m. – Keynote by Fred Lerdahl, “How Linguistics and Mathematics Have Influenced My Music,” fourth floor, Salt Lake City Public Library, main downtown library.

    Lerdahl has won many honors, ranging from the Koussevitzky Composition Prize (1966) to the Composer Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1971 and 1988) and fellowships from National Endowment for the Humanities (1991) and the Center for Advanced Study. He has written two books and numerous articles about computer-assisted composition, music cognition and other topics.