Archive for the 'Poetry- Physics' Category


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


The Measure

The Measure


I cannot
move backward
or forward.
I am caught

in the time
as measure.
What we think
of we think of—

of no other reason
we think than
just to think—
each for himself.

What is the measure of the poem: words, phrases, metrical feet, lines, stanzas . . . or thought? Each line has its own separate gravity and yet connects, but with difficulty, to the next. We are caught in the between: in time, in a now we learn, each moment at a time, for ourselves only.

From Words- Robert Creeley, 1926-1975


Sublimation Point

One pleasure of poetry is in speed of movement. Another is in the slow curve of the mind in response to that speed: We gradually embrace, in the dreamy slow motion of thought, the meaning of each quick gesture. The word “quick” includes among its meanings the ideas “alive” and “sensitive.” And the word “ponder” connotes heaviness. The poem is quick, in all senses, and we enjoy pondering it.

For instance, we may read a poem like William Shakespeare’s “The Phoenix and the Turtle” or Frank O’Hara’s “In Memory of My Feelings” many times, deliberately relishing at our leisure each tricky phrase or lightning-cut of transition.

A book, Jason Schneiderman’s Sublimation Point, has the fast thinker’s brilliance, where the rapid movement is both funny and, like so much comedy, quick-stepping, a teasing dance of avoidance and engagement with fear

By Robert Pinsky
© 2005 The Washington Post Company


Sublimation Point

The answer is entropy—how smell works—
little bits of everything—always spinning
off from where they were—flying off at random
into the world—which is to say into air.
There are other ways of solid to gas—
they’re substance specific, like iodine,
or dry ice—how I felt when I saw you—
straight to a new state without passing
through expected ones—as though enough
of me left at the moment you appeared that
I could never be whole without you—apply
heat—I turn straight into ether…

© –By Jason Schneiderman


The Earth Whirls Everywhere

The Earth Whirls Everywhere
by Dava Sobel

The spheres of science and poetry probably intersect in all eleven dimensions, for poems, like discoveries, spring from insights of unusual acumen, expressed in concise, often symbolic language. I sincerely believe that e=mc2 could be construed as haiku.

When I was writing Longitude, I searched poetry anthologies for epigraphs that would open each chapter with a link between science and art—as a way to invite the non-scientist into the technical world of astronomers, clock-makers, and cartographers. I was surprised but elated to find that Lord Byron had included reference to “the best time-piece made by Harrison” (the inventor of the marine chronometer) in Don Juan. Even more apt lines came from The Hunting of the Snark by Lewis Carroll (who, under his real name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, lectured and wrote about mathematics):


“What’s the good of Mercator’s North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?”
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
“They are merely conventional signs!”

While studying the science of seventeenth-century Italy for Galileo’s Daughter, I discovered that Galileo, who laid the foundations of modern physics, prized the poetry of his countrymen Torquato Tasso and Ludovico Ariosto. Galileo committed a great deal of Latin and Tuscan poetry to memory, according to his son’s account, and could recite the better part of Orlando Furioso by heart. He also wrote poetry. At least six of his sonnets have survived, as well as two longer poems of about two hundred lines each, and one extremely long work of three hundred lines—a rhyming diatribe against what he called “the wearing of the gown.” This poem argues that faculty members should not be forced to wear their academic robes, as was the practice at the University of Pisa when Galileo began teaching there in 1589. In fact, he said forcefully at the close of the first stanza, the best thing in the world would be for everyone to go naked, so that men and women could honestly assess each other’s virtues. This sentiment is now quoted—and duly attributed to Galileo—in a featured position on the Web site of Associazione Naturista Italiana, the Italian nudist society.

In my latest book, The Planets, I used poetry throughout the chapter about Venus as a way to equate the planet with beauty. So many classic and modern poets have addressed “the evening star” or “the planet of love” that I felt certain I could introduce each scientific concept with part of a poem. The extraordinary brightness of Venus, for example, which is due to its proximity to Earth and also its dense covering of reflective clouds, is perfectly portrayed in Robert Frost’s “The Literate Farmer and the Planet Venus.”

Continue reading ‘The Earth Whirls Everywhere’



Symmetry— Essay: By K.C. Cole


People say that nothing is perfect. I beg to differ. The notion of symmetry is both perfect and nothing—a combination that gives it unreasonable effectiveness in physics.

Summing up 50 years of progress in fundamental physics, David Gross recently concluded: “The secret of nature is symmetry.” Everyone gets seduced by symmetry in one form or another, whether it’s the symmetry inherent in snowflakes or snail shells, kaleidoscopes or decorative tiles. But in physics, symmetry is more than just a pretty face. As Emmy Noether showed, there are symmetries behind every fundamental law.

This makes sense, because a symmetry describes what doesn’t vary even as things change—the solid truth beneath the superficial difference. Einstein, who first made symmetry central to physics, exposed a wealth of these pseudo-differences—including those between energy and matter, space and time. (As Einstein so often pointed out, his theories aren’t so much about things that are relative as things which are invariant.)

The late Frank Oppenheimer even cited the Golden Rule as an example of symmetry: If you do unto others as you’d like others to do unto you, and the doer and doee change places, it shouldn’t make a difference. Of course, a snowflake is symmetrical in that you can rotate it 60 degrees without making a discernible difference. But if you rotate it 5 degrees, the symmetry is shattered. To a physicist, the puddle the snowflake melts into is much more symmetrical: snowflakes can be individuals, but drops of water all look alike.

Turning snowflakes into drops of water is essentially what the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Geneva will be trying to do—melting matter to reveal underlying symmetries.

If supersymmetric particles turn up at high energies, for example, it will mean that bosons and fermions—which seem like apples and oranges—have fallen off the same family tree. Each quark will have its squark; each photon its photino—a perfectly symmetrical team. The symmetry lost when the universe cooled will be, for the moment, restored.


Even more beautiful symmetries appear at even higher energies. Heat up the universe to big bang temperatures, and the wildly diverse family of forces turns into one. String theory, with its tangled 10-dimensional topologies, is more symmetrical still; with so much room to move about, there are ample ways for the same thing (the string) to appear in radically different forms (quarks, gravity).

Continue reading ‘Symmetry..’


On the Nature of Things

On the Nature of Things (Latin: De rerum natura) is a first century BC epic poem by Lucretius that grandly proclaims the reality of man’s role in a universe without a god to help him along. It is a statement of personal responsibility in a world in which everyone is driven by hungers and passions with which they were born and do not understand.


Again, if movement always is connected,
New Motions coming in from old in order fixed,
If atoms never swerve and make beginning
Of motions that can break the bonds of fate
And foil the infinite chain of cause and effect
What is the origin of this free will
Possessed by living creatures throughout the earth?

-Lucretius (ca. 94-ca. 55 B.C.), Titus Lucretius Carus, was a Latin poet and philosopher. His one work, “De rerum natura”, a didactic poem in hexameters, renders in verse the atomistic philosophy of Epicurus, forerunner of the modern-day atomic theory.





Some people raise uncertainty
To a principle
As though we were nothing but atoms
Atoms don’t bleed
It’s not anticipation makes them breathless
They expect nothing
And so
They’ve no need

Some people say, Nature’s dialectic
As though she knew how else things could have been
Nature doesn’t choose
She never bates her breath in expectation
She’s no need
And so
Nothing to lose


Life is a lot like Jazz - It's best when you improvise

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