Saturday, December 9, 2017

Electrons Are Not Snowflakes

 When I was an undergraduate studying physics, one of the most shocking passages I read was about electrons, in a textbook. David Griffiths (best physics textbook author ever), like the great physicist Richard Feynman, had little tolerance for "philosophy," and yet, also like Feynman, perpetually dished out philosophical gems. It seemed automatic for both of them, like breathing. They saw themselves not as "doing philosophy," but as framing physical, mathematical, and imagistic interpretations of problems. In other words, they were doing philosophy, just not silly philosophy where anything goes. Their philosophy of physics was the most rigorous kind.    
Griffiths wrote, "You can't paint an electron red, or pin a label on it [...] all electrons are utterly identical in a way that no two classical objects can ever be. It is not merely that we do not happen to know which is which, because there is no such thing as 'this' electron or 'that' electron; all we can legitimately talk about is 'an' electron."
When I was in the third grade, I became fixated on the concept of identical objects. I must have bored my neighbor to tears, talking about how her parents' newspaper was the same, but not the same, as my parents' newspaper. A tiny little tear or bend or ink smudge made them different. 

On the first day of Metaphysics in college, our professor held up our textbook and asked, "does anyone have this book?" In my eagerness to be a good student, I fell into the trap and nodded affirmatively. He became animated: "No! You can't have this book! This book is in my hand!" It was his introduction to the concept of token and type, my newspaper thing. 

But Griffiths was telling us something radical about electrons. Something I have never forgotten. In the spirit of Calvino's Cosmicomics, where an impossible narrator describes the early universe in inescapably human terms, I wrote a poem from the perspective of the electrons (a poem that necessarily loses the linguistic legitimacy Griffiths was striving to teach us). The poem is in my forthcoming chapbook. Here it is:
(originally published in Tinderbox Poetry Journal)

Each day, the electrons grow tired of resembling each other so completely and edge—as a group—toward properties. “Red,” one says, but since they are identical, no one knows who said this and they adopt it as their collective stance. “We should like to be red,” they say in unison.
And they paint themselves red, but as redness is only a phenomenon of light interacting with atoms, of which electrons are only a part, the electrons realize, one by one or as a group (no one can tell), that they can’t be sure whether they have become red at all.
“I was hoping for a change,” one says. But since all electrons are identical, it is unclear which of the electrons is most disappointed about their failed attempt to distinguish themselves.

Something keeps escaping them.

They agree that they are relatively light particles and that they often occupy orbitals in atoms. But this is not enough.

“We have charge,” one says.

“And spin,” another adds.
“I hear the stars can be told from each other,” one electron says. “That some are old and some are young, some are larger than others, some are destined for collapse or explosion. That each star has a composition, like a fingerprint.”
“This is what we lack,” says another electron, whose thoughts are so attuned to the first it is as if they share one mind. “We are not composed of anything but ourselves.”


If you like this piece, pre-order my new chapbookWorld, Composed. The book is a collection of meditations on contemporary physics, and ships March 23, 2018. Pre-orders help determine the size of the pressrun, so please reserve your copy today.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Quarks and Empty Spaces: Reimagining Lucretius

Sometime in 2008, I first had the brazen idea to “update” a two-thousand-year-old poem. I ran across a passage of the ancient book-length poem by Lucretius called The Nature of Things and began to wonder, how would this book sound if it were written today? Both physics and poetry have radically changed since Lucretius was writing his treatise that all phenomena have a natural explanation (with which I agree) and that all matter was reducible to atoms (which has become complicated). After all, physics as a proper discipline did not exist in 50 BC; atomism was pure philosophy then, and did not gather empirical support until many centuries later. And after that, physics was wholly transformed in the 20th century by relativity and quantum mechanics. I felt that any book-length poem on the nature of the universe written today should reflect these fundamental changes, and correspondingly, that the poetry should transcend the hexameters and didactic style of The Nature of Things.

So, over many years I wrote my answer to the question, how would The Nature of Things sound today? I brought what I had learned from my formal education in physics to the poems. I’m proud to say that it’s finally coming out in chapbook form in March of 2018 (but is available for pre-order today)!

Over the years I had seen excerpts of Lucretius’s book-length poem, but before 2008, the translations I read did not particularly grab me. I knew that the word “atom” came from Democritus (perhaps also Leucippus), and that it meant “indivisible”—as a noun, not an adjective, as in, the smallest indivisible piece of matter (now I prefer the more accurate “uncuttable,” same deal with the part of speech). I did not know much then of Epicurean philosophy—actually, I knew a great deal of Epicurean philosophy, because it is essentially the philosophy of modern science and contemporary society, but I did not know that it originated with a Greek named Epicurus. He took atomic theory and ran with it, fleshing out an entire natural philosophy based on the simple principles that nothing comes from nothing, and nothing is reduced to nothing (reminiscent of the pithy statement of the Conservation of Matter we learn in grade school, where “matter is neither created nor destroyed”). And Lucretius was the Roman poet who, approximately three hundred years after Epicurus, translated Epicurean philosophy into Latin hexameters in his 7500-line poem, De Rerum Natura/The Nature of Things.

Serendipitously, this (2008) was the year that a brand-new translation of The Nature of Things by David Slavitt became available. (I have since read A. E. Stallings rhyming translation that came out in 2007—what a wonderful revival Lucretius had at that moment!) Slavitt’s version spoke to me more than any other—it was modern, and there was music in it. I heard a voice in there, likely it was mostly Lucretius and partly Slavitt, but it was speaking to me and I desperately wanted to join the conversation. Slavitt showed us what the ancient poem might sound like in modern language, but I wanted to bring contemporary physics into the picture.

But we moved from the Arizona desert to start a life in rural Indiana, and that radical life change put the project on hold. It would have become one of many abandoned projects if my good friend and poet Emily Koehn hadn’t suggested in early 2013 that we begin a daily exchange. Trying to keep up with a poem a day had me scrambling for old drafts, and I found two beginnings, one an elementary overview of the particles in physics today (this became “Enter: Matter,” published in Conjunctions in print) and one an ode to the electron (this became “Orbiting the Nucleus,” published in Waxwing). I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to “answer” Lucretius by addressing all the marvelous and strange tiny particles that physics describes today.

In 2013, I began a study of The Nature of Things in earnest. Stephen Greenblatt’s award-winning 2011 book The Swerve, a history of the text of the The Nature of Things, gave me a deeper appreciation of the book I now consider integral to my life. I dove into scholarly texts. I read numerous translations. I lived and breathed Lucretius.

In 2014, I took a first draft of the manuscript to Colrain Poetry Conference in Truchas, New Mexico. At that point, I considered my project to be a “dialogue” with Lucretius, but that was more in my mind than on the page. There were found pieces, selections of text from Slavitt’s translation, then my poems in juxtaposition, in a call and response format, but it was still too loose. Not long after, a more overt dialogue was completed and published in Conjunctions online as, “Atomos, World Composed: Canonical Dialogue with Lucretius.” Here is an excerpt from this (with Slavitt's Lucretius in italics) from the poem in the center of the book:


Consider now the air, which, at every hour, changes itself in numberless ways…

What earthworm and lime have to do with the atomic purr of the natural world.

Heavy earth, the mud of creation.

What Queen Anne’s Lace has to do with the colliding protons of the natural world.

Ether above the breezes, invulnerable to storms and tempests…
What worn hands and children have to do with the tera-electron-volts of the natural world.

The ether glides with an unchanging and tranquil sweep on high…
What spinach seeds and manure have to do with the glued nuclei of the natural world.

Its movement slow and unswerving, like the Black Sea’s constant current.

What rotting Brandywine tomatoes have to do with the matter-antimatter annihilation of the natural world.

What we know about other parts of nature all of which works in the same way with the same laws,
What little bluestem has to do with the electron hum of the natural world.

not only here on earth but up in the sky…

What goose eggs and the ground after a frost have to do with the whole fermionic cry of the natural world.


In 2016, I workshopped the manuscript a second time at the Vermont College of Fine Arts Manuscript Conference, with Kevin Young as my instructor. Kevin has a knack for thinking about books, not mere collections. A version very close to the one I brought to Vermont is the forthcoming chapbook from Finishing Line Press, World, Composed.

If you're interested, order a copy of World, Composed today. Pre-publication sales determine the size of the press run, so reserve your copy now!


Thursday, November 30, 2017

Announcing my new chapbook!

My first poetry collection is now available for purchase from Finishing Line Press. Click here to pre-order a copy! The book comes out March 23, 2018.