Tag Archives: Sunday Poem

Sunday Science Poem: Straining Minds versus Nature’s Single Gesture

William Carlos Williams’ “Labrador” (1948)

Coast_of_Labrador_1874It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re continuing our focus on the poems of William Carlos Williams.

As much as we might wish to have a unified understanding of nature, we have no choice but to break it into tractable chunks. Richard Feynman put it eloquently in his Lectures on Physics:

If we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts – physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on – remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

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Sunday Science Poem: The Stark Dignity of Self-Organization

William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All” (1923)

After an unintentionally long hiatus, our Sunday Science Poem is back. April is National Poetry Month, and this month we’ll read the poetry of the American physician-poet William Carlos Williams (1883-1963).

“In physics, irreversibility and dissipation were interpreted as degradation, while among natural scientists biological evolution, which is obviously an irreversible* process, was associated with increasing complexity… Today scientists realize that dissipative systems constitute a very large and important class of natural systems.” (Grégoire Nicolis and Ilya Prigogine, Exploring Complexity (1989), p. 50-51

Nicolis and Prigogine argue that we should no longer take the simple, regular, and stable motions of classical mechanics as the essence of our macroscopic physical world. Rather, we live in “a world of instabilities and fluctuations, which are ultimately responsible for the amazing variety and richness of the forms and structure we see in nature around us.” Nature is characterized by spontaneously organizing structures. Continue reading

JFK on the Sunday Science Poem

Well, not just the Sunday Science Poem. I suppose his remarks could be construed to be about poetry, more generally, and about Robert Frost, more specifically (as the remarks were made in honor of Robert Frost’s passing earlier in 1963):

At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
-President John F Kennedy, Remarks at Amherst College, 26 October 1963

*Hat tip to Greg Proops on The Smartest Man in the World Podcast.

Lucretius the Epicurean

If you have been following Mike’s Sunday Science Poem series, you know that we are fans of Lucretius. Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher in the first century BC. He is famous for his only extant work De Rerum NaturaThe Nature of Things, covering many topics near and dear to the hearts of modern scientists.

I am also a fan of the podcast History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps by Peter Adamson at King’s College London and LMU Munchen. Lucretius was an Epicurean, which is one of the many schools of philosophy covered. It may not be a replacement for studying philosophy in school, but listening to episodes 55-59 (including an episode on Lucretius himself) will help you understand the philosophical paradigm Lucretius was using when he wrote his great poem, especially when you are reading Mike’s series of posts on Lucretius:

Sunday Poem

Sunday Science Poem: The Epicurean Theory of Vision, and Bedwetting in Ancient Rome

Sunday Science Poem: Why You Should Read Lucretius

Lucretius Did Not Believe in Non-Overlapping Magisteria

Lucretius and The Fear of Death

There is Grandeur in Lucretius’ View of Life

Lucretius: Lightning is Not a Means of Divine Communication


Sunday Science Poem: The Irreversibility of Time

Czesław Miłosz’s “This World” (1994)

Telomere_capsIt’s a question you’ve certainly heard before – the laws of physics work just fine when you run time backwards, so why, in the real world, does time only go forwards?

Run a movie backwards, and what you see could never happen in real life: a diver never leaps feet first out of the pool onto the board, while drops of water fling themselves back in. But, as Richard Feynman explained, at the level of atoms and molecules, there is no reason why running the film backward should be absurd – our laws of physics say time is reversible at the microscopic level. Feynman argued that time’s forward motion was a macroscopic phenomenon, rooted in the universe’s relentless increase in entropy. Physicist Lee Smolin has pursued a similar (but in many ways a radically different) idea – the forward flow of time is a consequence of a network of relationships in the universe. He may be right, but for the time being, why time is not reversible is still a deep mystery.

Physics isn’t the only place where reversibility appears to be a mystery. Why isn’t life reversible? Aging and death seem inevitable for us individually, but with each birth, the clock is reset. Biological time is reversed. How is that possible?

We don’t really know. Before your children are born you age twenty, thirty, or forty years. Your DNA has been copied and recopied, accumulating damage, telomeres have shortened, and your cells are on the way towards senescence, and yet each newborn gets a fresh start. Amazingly, each successive generation of children is not born ever more prematurely aged. If the clock can be reset for our germ cells, why can’t we reverse biological time in the rest of our cells? Continue reading