Friday, February 23, 2007

Reflections on "After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics"

After Reading a Child's
Guide to Modern Physics

If all a top physicist knows
About the Truth be true,
Then, for all the so-and-so's,
Futility and grime,
Our common world contains,
We have a better time
Than the Greater Nebulae do,
Or the atoms in our brains.

Marriage is rarely bliss
But, surely it would be worse
As particles to pelt
At thousands of miles per sec
About a universe
Wherein a lover's kiss
Would either not be felt
Or break the loved one's neck.

Though the face at which I stare
While shaving it be cruel
For, year after year, it repels
An ageing suitor, it has,
Thank God, sufficient mass
To be altogether there,
Not an indeterminate gruel
Which is partly somewhere else.

Our eyes prefer to suppose
That a habitable place
Has a geocentric view,
That architects enclose
A quiet Euclidian space:
Exploded myths — but who
Could feel at home astraddle
An ever expanding saddle?

This passion of our kind
For the process of finding out
Is a fact one can hardly doubt,
But I would rejoice in it more
If I knew more clearly what
We wanted the knowledge for,
Felt certain still that the mind
Is free to know or not.

It has chosen once, it seems,
And whether our concern
For magnitude's extremes
Really become a creature
Who comes in a median size,
Or politicizing Nature
Be altogether wise,
Is something we shall learn.

by W.H. Auden (born 21 February 1907),
[Listen to this poem]
When I chose to write about this poem to mark what would have been W.H. Auden's 100th birthday last month I did not realize that it would also be time for Chinese New Year celebrations. What does this poem have to do with CNY? Only a tedious link to the moment where I was at the table with my friends of various races, including three bachelor 'uncles' three times my age, when my phone's calendar reminded me: 'Auden 100'. I thought about this poem and wondered: what is the universe doing?

Then the moment was lost amongst the clacking of the mahjong tiles.

I haven't read much of Auden's work, and this poem is only one of four (out of maybe a dozen) that I have read and liked— I chose this poem because it gives me a chance to write about poets and scientists. There is a story I read involving the celebrated physicist Richard "The Great Explainer" Feynman (wiki page) and his response to Auden's "After Reading a Child's Guide to Modern Physics".

The long and the short of it, Feynman once challenged poets to be more scientific, saying:
"Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part...What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?"
One of Feynman's many correspondents then sent him Auden's poem, to which Feynman responded: "Mr. Auden’s poem only confirms his lack of response to Nature’s wonders for he himself says that he would like to know more clearly what we ‘want the knowledge for.’ We want it so we can love Nature more. Would you not turn a beautiful flower around in your hand to see it from other directions as well?"

In a later passage Feynman wrote:
"Nature's ways in the animate and inanimate world, together (for they are one), is rarely expressed in modern poetry where the aspect of Nature being appreciated is one which could have been known to men in the Renaissance [...] My lament was that a kind of intense beauty that I see given to me by science, is seen by so few others; by few poets and, therefore, by even fewer ordinary people."
Consider: at that moment when I wondered what the universe was doing as I played mahjong, skywatchers were looking underneath the red star of Antares in the constellation of Scorpio for a glimpse of 'Nova Scorpii 2007'. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago somewhere in the depths of space accreted matter on a white dwarf star ignited in a runaway thermonuclear reaction, ejecting matter into space at speeds of about 600km/s. This awesome event appears to us now as a faint point of light in the southern sky. In the celebrations this would have gone unnoticed—just another firework in the distance.

Meanwhile, unseen but part of the light radiation that is arriving to Earth are elementary particles called neutrinos ("the most tiny quantity of reality ever imagined by a human being," described the neutrino's co-discoverer Fred Reines in 1956)—a product of the thermonuclear reactions happening in the star. Hundreds of meters underground, in installations known as solar neutrino detectors (e.g. Japan's Super-Kamiokande) some of these neutrinos collide with the protons and neutrons in water molecule, releasing an electron—in the pitch darkness these gargantuan reservoirs of water twinkle with blue light, and from this scientists can learn a little bit more about the world.

Cosmological Models of the Universe

While all this happens the universe is expanding; 'an ever expanding saddle' was just one of the models of the universe that scientists had when Auden wrote the poem. We know now, however, that the universe is geometrically flat. This was published in the journal Science on 5th January 2007:
"On the whole, it is spatially flat and 13.7 billion years old, both of which are known to 1 percent precision; it is expanding at a rate of 70 plus/minus 2 km/sec per megaparsec, and the expansion us speeding up; and it is composed of 24 plus/minus 4 percent matter and 76 plus or minus 4 percent dark energy, with 4.2 plus/minus 0.5 percent of the matter in the form of atoms, between 0.1 and 1 percent in the form of neutrinos, and with the bulk of the matter dark and as yet unidentified. Stars...account for less than 1 percent of the total composition. The microwave background temperature has been measured to four significant figures, 2.725 plus/minus 0.001 K, and its tiny variations (about 0.001 percent) across the sky have been mapped with a resolution better than 0.1 degree."
—and (now that Auden's piece is obsolete!) who is the poet who will put that in words that will fire the imagination?

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Blogger enar arshad said...

wow.....i like auden,there is abeautiful piece LAW IS LIKE LOVE. he must be really talented to weaved serious stuff into poetry.
thank you for sharing this.

3:22 PM, February 23, 2007  
Anonymous Kenny Mah said...

"My lament was that a kind of intense beauty that I see given to me by science, is seen by so few others; by few poets and, therefore, by even fewer ordinary people."

Perhaps not. Perhaps now is the time for poets as he described to arise. Madcap Machinist, you could be a sorta New-Nova-Thermonuclear-physilyricist. (Whatever that means.)

I love medical poetry like this chap here. Try this one on for size: First Do No Harm.

3:36 PM, February 23, 2007  
Blogger Miao said...

This is so informative. Thanks for sharing!

9:43 PM, February 24, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

So much to unpack in this poem..

Firstly, there is the gentle humour that plays mockingly with a scientific, materialistic view of the universe (the marriage bit with particles being ‘hurled’ between husbands and wives is funny, and so is the face not being an undifferentiated, ugly mass). But, even so, science isn’t simply dismissed. There is a tacit acknowledgement of a human need and desire for science and the knowledge it brings, even while placing it as something almost separate or less directly applicable to the business of day to day living.

What intrigues me is how the role of science, or more specifically of physics, is looked upon through the human eyes of certainty, doubt, and perhaps even mystery with the purpose that it entails (“what/ We wanted the knowledge for”). We see this in the first two lines where scientific knowledge and truth are distinguished with the personal truths of being a human, and this thread follows through the poem, with the fourth stanza contrasting the human desire for a more human centred position in a geocentric galaxy in contrast to the well established scientific truth of a heliocentric one. In a larger sense, the poem poses philosophical questions of the nature of science and human endeavou and the whole metaphysics of who are we as humans in this great big universe (in light of the scientific knowledge gleaned and possessed).

The poem ends in the final stanza, asking for the humanisation of science, “a creature/ Who comes in median size”, while being conscious or cautioning against the dangers of its ‘politicisation’. In view of the context the poem was written, with the shadow of the atomic bomb and the looming spectre of the Cold War, Auden has given a hugely complex account of human relationship to science, and without doubt still worth thinking of today.

12:54 PM, February 25, 2007  
Anonymous tunku halim said...

Lovely site you have. I'm going to blogroll you. Let me know if you mind!

1:26 PM, February 26, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

great comments everyone, thanks. just some quick responses because i just edited the post above to fix some of the typos and haven't much time.

tunku halim: we're thrilled! i wonder if anyone has written a poem after reading a children's history of malaysia ;-)

d.i.: thanks for bringing back the poem into discussion. i am always astounded by how much we median-sized creatures have--and have yet to--achieve. unlike auden, i have no doubts of the value of science in our lives. and there is so much more that we do not know about our world.

here is a physicist's response to this poem.

kenny: "first do no harm" made me feel physically ill, so it was a great poem! the feynman quote was from forty years ago, and there are definitely more scientist-poets around now, though not very many famous ones. Of course, we Malaysians should have a poet like that too... have we?

enar: look also for Auden's "O Where Are You Going"... that is a personal favourite because it gives me a sense of courage when I read it. Auden was very prolific, and I'm sure that while not everyone likes his verse all that much, one always has at least one favourite Auden.

2:58 PM, February 26, 2007  
Blogger enar arshad said...

i have read O Where Are You Going,took some time to understand it .thanks for sharing

3:43 PM, February 27, 2007  
Blogger david santos said...

This poem and text are very good.
Thank you

8:57 AM, March 03, 2007  
Anonymous Whitearrow said...

A very interesting poem indeed. it did seem to be dissing science or at least the point of science, which i found a bit presumptuous.

i would have thought that a poet
more than most would see the validity in viewing the universe through different lenses, especially after being on the receiving end of those who don't like poems (it seems to be that poems are often thought by those who don't like them as having no real point, being nonsense and flummery and what-not).

personally, i find the process of scientific discovery immensely interesting and exciting and no less poetic for being in 'particles' as opposed to a whole. but i suppose that's the point of a poem like this: to make us think about the fact that there are those particles out there and so, what is their relevance to our daily lives?...

auden it seems (and i say it seems because a lot of poets do sometimes write as they do to provoke, the statements made in their own poems not necessarily being their own beliefs)is partially dissing science but also genuinely raising the question of its importance and relationship to us. he seems distrustful of the science of his time, and there are underlying portents of disaster looming in the future when i read the last stanza (is it stanza?..i'm so out of touch with the technicalities nowadays;))

In that, perhaps this poem will always be relevant. a lot change has the potential for disaster, and i suppose science is no exception.

3:03 PM, March 05, 2007  
Blogger dreamer idiot said...

Hi Whitearrrow,

Nice to see you around again. Couldn't resist replying (Sorry, Machinist) to your comments. You read well and am right about the last stanza. The poem suggests a more complex relationship to science, though we benefit so much from it. Machinist gave the year was written, where the shadow of the atomic bomb loomed large during this post-WWII, Cold War period.

7:28 PM, March 05, 2007  
Blogger bibliobibuli said...

sorry i'm so late commenting. was contemplating the universe!

i think that paragraph from "science" is poetry by itself. set it out a little differently perhaps.

i find all this incredibly exciting and am just frustrated that my stupid head can't get itself around so much that i would like it to get round. i've wimped out of "a brief history of time" every time i've attempted it

auden's question is valid - what do we want knowledge for? but to not want to seek answers to me is unthinkable, even if we find it hard to deal with the answers.

and doesn't it put things into perspective to think about our own smallness in the universe and the ultimate futility of all we do?

7:27 AM, March 15, 2007  
Blogger Madcap Machinist said...

we are indeed very small.

3:42 AM, March 17, 2007  
Blogger Agung budi kurniawan said...

good news

3:17 AM, February 06, 2009  

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