After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics

May 18, 2007 at 11:46 pm 2 comments

W. H. Auden

Listen (to Auden read)

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.

I am delighted to add this old favourite to the collection. Rarely do poets bring in pelting particles and Euclidean space when speaking of matters of the heart. And sadly so, for where else can you find such trenchant or touching metaphors?

Yes, there is Nabokov naming butterflies and Lehrer singing out the periodic table. But where are the great narratives that seamlessly incorporate the wonder of science or the beauty of mathematics?

The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, come again and again when we look at any problem deeply enough. With more knowledge comes deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to penetrate deeper still …

It is true that few unscientific people have this particular kind of religious experience. Our poets do not write about it; our artists do not try to portray this remarkable thing. I don’t know why. Is nobody inspired by our present picture of the universe? The value of science remains unsung by singers, so you are reduced to hearing about it — not a song or a poem, but an evening lecture about it….

Perhaps one of the reasons is that you have to know how to read the music. For instance, the scientific analysis says, perhaps, something like this: “The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks.” Now, what does that mean?

It means that the phosphorus that is in the brain of a rat (and also in mine, and yours) is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago, but that all of the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced, and the ones that were there before have gone away.

So what is this mind, what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week’s potatoes! That is what now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago — a mind that has long ago been replaced.

That is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms, to note that the thing that I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, then go out; always new atoms but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday. – from The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

Great commentary on the poem at puisi-poetry.

* The audio is a .ram file, not an mp3.



Entry filed under: Black Mamba, English, Wystan Hugh Auden.

Instead of a farewell Nick and the Candlestick

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Revealed  |  May 23, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    The Nabokov link doesn’t seem to work.

  • 2. blackmamba  |  May 23, 2007 at 9:46 pm

    thanks Revealed. should work now.


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