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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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Puisi-Poesy Valentine

Personally, Valentine's Day does not figure much in my calendar, but how could Puisi-Poesy let this day pass in silence? Being single and not having particularly romantic thoughts for anyone today I thought that I'd dedicate a post for our beloved poets and you the reader:
"À Une Passante"

The deafening road around me roared.
Tall, slim, in deep mourning, making majestic grief,
A woman passed, lifting and swinging
With a pompous gesture the ornamental hem of her garment,

Swift and noble, with statuesque limb.
As for me, I drank, twitching like an old roué,
From her eye, livid sky where the hurricane is born,
The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills,

A gleam... then night! O fleeting beauty,
Your glance has given me sudden rebirth,
Shall I see you again only in eternity?

Somewhere else, very far from here! Too late! Perhaps never!
For I do not know where you flee, nor you where I am going,
O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!

Charles Baudelaire in Fleurs du Mal, trans. Geoffrey Wagner.
(Psst: if you think French is la langue d'amour, listen here.)
Readers of cultural criticism may recall Walter Benjamin's writings on Charles Baudelaire's poems, how he describes a poet who is in perpetual state of shock when confronted with the metropolitan crowds of Paris, a poet whose response to the same anxieties that plagued William Wordsworth who tells us in this excerpt from his autobiographical The Prelude:
How oft, amid those overflowing streets,
Have I gone forward with the crowd, and said
Unto myself, "The face of every one
That passes by me is a mystery!"
Thus have I looked, nor ceased to look, oppressed
By thoughts of what and whither, when and how,
Until the shapes before my eyes became
A second-sight procession, such as glides
Over still mountains, or appears in dreams;
...was the exact opposite. "It is the phantom crowd of the words, the fragments, the beginnings of lines from which the poet, in the deserted streets, wrests the poetic booty," says Benjamin, describing the urban poet as a flâneur whose purpose is "to endow this crowd with a soul...[whose] encounters with it are the experience that he does not tire of telling about."

My reference to Wordsworth is only to provide the contrast to Baudelaire's poem, for where Wordsworth is baffled by "how men lived / Even next-door neighbours, as we say, yet still / Strangers, not knowing each the other's name.", Baudelaire himself seemed to be enraptured by the city, and on one occasion, as we see even the glance of anonymous woman passing by inspires awe—"The softness that fascinates and the pleasure that kills"—and delight, as if the he was reborn! Because yes! one glance is enough to affirm to the poet that he was also an individual and deserves love, just as he ecstatically proclaims his love for the unknown woman.

For isn't it the feeling of awe that should inspire poets? Awe in the face of an obliterating assault to the senses ("The deafening road around me roared", the hustle and bustle of a city) and to retrieve from it some semblance of memory, if only a fleeting glimpse. Recently, in the comments to "Flight", Sharanya describes her experience of being hyper-aware of everything she observes, and I concur that this must be so: a poet must find ecstasy of the moment and convey to the reader who "...throbbest life and pride and love the same as I", says Whitman.

And so to you, dear reader, poets offer the gift of words wrought of passion. Give a poem to a loved one today, or even to a stranger (here is Whitman's 'To You': "Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? /And why should I not speak to you?") ... or, at least, if you're a singleton like me, be content and smile, for there may be someone there giving you a second glance as you pass by, feeling 'The Catch', whispering on the edges of language: Car j'ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais, / Ô toi que j'eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

"Singh Song!"

Singh Song!

by Daljit Nagra

i run just one ov my daddy’s shops
from 9 o’clock to 9 o’clock
and he vunt me not to hav a break
but ven nobody in, i do di lock —

cos up di stairs is my newly bride
vee share in chapatti
vee share in di chutney
after vee hav made luv
like vee rowing through Putney —

ven i return vid my pinnie untied
di shoppers always point and cry:
hey Singh, ver yoo bin?
yor lemons are limes
yor bananas are plantain
dis dirty little floor need a little bit of mop
in di worst Indian shop
on di whole Indian road —

above my head high heels tap di ground
as my vife on di net is playing wid di mouse
ven she catch di cat she couple up a pair
book dem for a date on her lover’s web page —

my bride,
she effing at my mum
in all di colours of Punjabi
my bride,
she stumble like a drunk
making fun at my daddy
my bride,
tiny eyes ov a gun
and di tummy ov a teddy
my bride,
she hav a red crew cut
and she wear a Tartan sari
a donkey jacket and some pumps
on di squeak ov di girls who are buy my penny sweeties —

Ven i return from di tickle ov my bride
di shoppers always point and cry:
hey Singh, ver yoo bin?
di milk is out ov date
and di bread is alvays stale
the tings yoo hav on offer yoo hav never got in stock
in di worst Indian shop
on di whole Indian road —

late in di midnight hour
ven yoo shoppers are wrap up quiet
ven di precinct is concrete-cool
vee cum down whispering stairs
and sit on my silver stool
from behind di chocolate bars
vee stare past di half-price window signs
at di beaches ov di UK in di brightey moon —

from di stool each night she say,
how much do yoo charge for dat moon baby?
from di stool each night i say,
is half di cost ov yoo baby.
from di stool each night she say,
how much does dat come to baby?
from di stool each night i say,
is priceless baby —

Daljit Nagra has his debut book of poems just out this month in the UK, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, on Faber and Faber. He’s British Indian, and his poems tell stories about Indians living in Britain. The book is not available here yet, so I cannot tell you much, personally, about what the poems in it are talking about. I do have this rather funny and endearing poem about a Punjabi working in one of his father’s shops, from an issue of Poetry London.

Daljit uses Asian patois and English rhythm and rhyming to make his poem work. The rhythm comes across a little sing-song-ey, deliberately, with almost regular beats, in the initial stanzas. The rhyming in the first stanza works very well indeed. The repetition of “9 o’clock”, and the only line there with the strictest rhythm and beats, underlines the mundanity and boredom of long hours of work. “Clock” and “lock” work on another level, besides being mere rhyming for some comic effect. Singh, the character here, is confined - locked - within the hours of the clock, with no permitted break, only his own clandestine one, during which he locks up the shop to go upstairs to make love to his new bride, or as how Singh says it,” … made luv/like vee rowing through Putney” – very funny.

The italicized lines beginning with his shoppers pointing and crying “hey Singh, ver yoo bin?” are like some chorus in a song, putting the reader in mind of Indian movies. The consecutive italicized lines in the last stanza even work like musical counterpoints, like a Bollywood hero singing to his girl, who sings back.

However, this Bollywood heroine in the story is no typical Indian girl. She cusses at her mother in law, makes fun of the father in law, has no big kohled eyes, no hour-glass shaped body, no long thick jet-black flowing hair, no long wrapping sari round her, nor any dainty pointed shoes. In spite of all this, our hero Singh simply adores her. The way he repeats “my bride” in the fifth stanza is like someone saying “my love”, over and over, besotted – this is the endearing part.

The story has a happy ending, just like any Bollywood movie. At midnight both Singh and his wife go downstairs, and sit among the shop’s goods, and stare out through the shop window at a bright moon, and they make the most lovey-dovey exchanges you’ve ever heard, all very platitudinous at first, like some old-fashion romantic script from some old black-and-white movie. But, no matter this, the last line makes you sigh, go ahh at the denouement, because Singh might have just charged for the moon they’re looking up at only half the cost of her, but in the end, Singh’s love for her is priceless.

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