Poetic Physics

Via Making Light, Chris Clarke at Creek Running North has some sharp words in response to the alleged Deep Thoughts on his Starbucks cup:

When Einstein explained his theory of relativity, he couldn’t express it in the precise, scientific writing of physics. He had to use poetry. Poetry: the connection of words, images, and the relationships that gives [sic] them meaning. Quantum physics changed the world. No longer can we view the world in separate, mechanical ways, but we must accept the reality of interconnection, unity, and togetherness. Life is poetry.

This pearl of wisdom is attributed to one David Seel, an English teacher from Maryland. Chris does a nice job of dissecting it, starting with the observation that Einstein “announced his Special Theory of Relativity through the radically unorthodox method of publishing in a respected physics journal,” but he misses one key flaw in the original: Relativity and Quantum Mechanics are different theories. Even if Einstein did use poetry to explain relativity, quantum mechanics had nothing to do with it. Just because they’re both weird, doesn’t make them the same thing.

(To be fair, I posted a long time ago arguing that Einstein’s biggest achievement with Special Relativity had more to do with storytelling than mathematics. Maybe I’ll dig those up for a Classic Edition this week…)

I really want to highlight two other things from that post, though. First is an excellent discussion of the use of quantum mechanics as cover for quackery:

[Q]uantum physics has long been abused as a way to peddle bullshit. It is usually invoked as a kind of rhetorical squid ink by people who couldn’t get a 2 on the Physics AP, with the intent of obscuring the logical and factual flaws in arguments they make to buttress their superstitions. Exhibit A: homeopathy. Faced with the disturbing news that simple math tells us that there is no active medicinal ingredient in water at homeopathic dilutions, the adherent will often claim that something affects the water at the quantum level.[…]

Here’s a handy guide: if a person tries to explain away an unusual claim in terms of quantum mechanics, he or she is almost certainly bullshitting you unless the subject being discussed is a) colder than anything you will ever encounter, b) faster than anything you will ever ride, or c) too small to be resolved using a light microscope. Otherwise, quantum mechanics explains the world as it is.

It’d be hard to improve on that, so I won’t even try.

Picking up the poetry theme, though, he cites Whitman’s famous poem about the “learn’d astronomer,” which is sort of the spiritual antecedent of the coffee-cup quote, and unleashes another rant to warm the heart of the professional scientist:

Oh, how many times I have heard this poem cited in support of the soulless scientist, his

(always he, excepting the women in lab coats and severe hairstyles who eventually and inevitably loosen their hair, go into soft focus, and swoon a tidal wave of passion at the undereducated hero)

his heart a dried stale crust of bread, a stamp collector, putting each treasure into its proper sterile container, going home evenings to relax by doing math. It is only we the ignorant, who know nothing about anything, who grasp the importance of it all. You white-coats with your mass spectrometers and stethoscopes and Tesla coils, heads buried in lists of Greek squiggles, ears muffled by recordings of static: you just don’t get it. Never mind that patient observation of repeated events, in wildlife biology or geology or learn’d astronomy, often has more to do with meditation than with math. Never mind that no one goes into the sciences anymore, at least not most of the sciences, except for passion.

Again, this is dead on, and there’s more in this vein. Chris goes on to quote from Edward Abbey on the superiority of quartzite to wood-nymphs, but my usual response is from the Feynman Lectures:

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is ‘mere’. 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 more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

The world as we know it from modern science is, if anything, more strange and wonderful than the classical ideal so prized by the Romantics. Ancient myths put a spirit in every tree and stream, while modern physics turns empty space into a raging storm of virtual particles, popping in and out of existence billions of times a second. And we can prove it. When it comes to awesome mystery, Ovid’s got nothing on Quantum Electro-Dynamics.

Of course, it hasn’t led to much in the way of poetry, save for the occasional John M. Ford piece, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t, if poets would put a little more effort into learning about the world as it really is.

7 thoughts on “Poetic Physics

  1. going home evenings to relax by doing math

    Uh… what about those of us who do enjoy relaxing with a cup of cocoa and a book on elliptic curves?

  2. I like this one, attributed to Dirac:

    “Oppenheimer, they tell me you are writing poetry. I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write poetry at the same time. They are in opposition. In science you want to say something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry you are bound to say… something that everybody knows already in words that nobody can understand.”

  3. Chad, thanks for the link, and I winced on being reminded of my omission. Good job.

    corkscrew, I also inadfvertently omitted the “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That.” My apologies.

  4. Ah, further evidence for me that much of the public believes that anything weird is quantum mechanics. Meanwhile quantum mechanics is simply everything that flows from the discovery that energy comes in quanta, a much more boring tale.

    This is what comes from seeing all words poetically, and there’s no recorking the bottle. Too many people are already intoxicated by fantasy, and it’s contagious. So the question is, “Do we make money off of them or is there something better for us to do?”

  5. There is quite a bit of science-driven poetry out there, actually, you simply have to look for it, often under the umbrella of ‘speculative’ poetry.

  6. The History of Science Poetry

    I also loved that Feynman quotation so:

    * “Starscapes” for Chamber Choir, Three Woodwinds, Piano and Magnetic Tape;
    Composer: Van Decker; texts by Jonathan V. Post & Richard Feynman, “Footnote to
    Feynman”, University Music Center, California State University, Long Beach, CA, 18 May 1990]

    “Footnote to Feynman”, Jonathan V. Post and Richard Feynman,
    [Engineering & Science, Caltech, Pasadena, CA, Vol.XLVI, No.5, p.28, ISSN: 0013-7812, May 1983; reprinted in Songs from Unsung Worlds, ed. Bonnie Bilyeu Gordon, intro by Alan Lightman (award winning author of Einstein’s Dreams), Birkhauser Boston/AAAS,
    hardcover ISBN: 0-8176-3296-4, paperback ISBN: 3-7643-3296-4, 1985



    Skidding and spinning to Physics class on my motorcycle
    to study the kinematics of rotation
    thinking: all rotation is revolutionary.

    I am getting a new angle on everything, and the symbol
    is a small-case theta, which looks like a wheel
    seen at an oblique angle, turning on its axis.

    Twist the accelerator grip on the handlebars
    and feel the torque: the moment of force
    my turn signal arm become a lever arm.

    Listening to the engine’s organ tones as Bach, listening
    for the center of mass; Yoga on a Yamaha; the moment of inertia
    “the still point of the turning world.”

    I feel I am standing still, the Earth spinning below me
    like a giant gyroscope, the entire galaxy
    “like a prayerwheel in a whirlpool.”

    The day draws towards its omega; I hear the cheerleaders
    sing out: “What makes the world go round?”
    the crowd replying: “angular momentum!”

    4 Dec 78

    Copyright 1978,2004 by Emerald City Publishing.
    All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
    May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.

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