Molecular Evolution

Most people remember James Clerk Maxwell for his equations relating electric and magnetic fields, which revolutionized 19th-century science. But the Scottish physicist and mathematician was also an amateur poet, and this small collection, hosted by the University of Toronto, offers a rare insight into his opinions and personality:

Gin a body meet a body
Flyin’ through the air,
Gin a body hit a body,
Will it fly? and where?

That’s a “Rigid Body,” “singing,” in Maxwell’s verse “In Memory of Edward Wilson, Who Repented of What Was in His Mind to Write After Section”—a pastiche of Maxwell’s countryman Robert Burns. (“Section” here probably refers to a meeting of the British Association devoted to mathematics and physics.) It’s said that Maxwell used to sing these lines while accompanying himself on a guitar.

Also here are the revealingly whimsical “Molecular Evolution”:

What combinations of ideas,
Nonsense alone can wisely form!
What sage has half the power that she has,
To take the towers of Truth by storm?

… and the regrettable “Lectures to Women on Physical Science” (“To mirror heaven those eyes were given / And not for methods of precision”), as well as three other poems. Together they give a telling glimpse into the reflective and playful inner life of a giant in the canon of physics.


Molecular Evolution

At quite uncertain times and places,
The atoms left their heavenly path,
And by fortuitous embraces,
Engendered all that being hath.
And though they seem to cling together,
And form “associations” here,
Yet, soon or late, they burst their tether,
And through the depths of space career.
So we who sat, oppressed with science,
As British asses, wise and grave,
Are now transformed to wild Red Lions,
As round our prey we ramp and rave.
Thus, by a swift metamorphosis,
Wisdom turns wit, and science joke,
Nonsense is incense to our noses,
For when Red Lions speak, they smoke.
Hail, Nonsense! dry nurse of Red Lions,
From thee the wise their wisdom learn,
From thee they cull those truths of science,
Which into thee again they turn.
What combinations of ideas,
Nonsense alone can wisely form!
What sage has half the power that she has,
To take the towers of Truth by storm?
Yield, then, ye rules of rigid reason!
Dissolve, thou too, too solid sense!
Melt into nonsense for a season,
Then in some nobler form condense.
Soon, all too soon, the chilly morning,
This flow of soul will crystallize,
Then those who Nonsense now are scorning,
May learn, too late, where wisdom lies.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

11] “The `Red Lions’ are a club formed by Members of the British Association, to meet for relaxation after the graver labours of the day.” (Note by Campbell.)
17] “Leonum arida nutrix.” — Horace. (Note by Campbell.)

© Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society

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