In memory of Ray Bradbury, this week’s Sunday poem is “To Know What Isn’t Known, That’s Mine”, from his 2002 collection I Live By the Invisible, published by Salmon Poetry (buy the book*, support poetry and small indie publishers).
From my perspective as a scientist, the title of the poem alludes to science, but it also alludes to the process of writing. Bradbury begins by explicitly suggesting that writing has the same aim as science. The rest of the poem, while clearly referring to the struggle of the imagination engaged in by writers, also aptly describes the mental wrestling of scientists.
Read this poem and remember why Bradbury was acknowledged as the lyricist of science fiction.
To know what isn't known, that's mine,
My job, refining blood
To find what's good and bad in it,
What in the quick cell lies,
What dies or lives or lingering
Provides the key where all the good stuff hides.
I do not know it, cannot find it, so I try
With words to jump the pheasants forth Continue reading "Sunday Poem"
This week’s poem is Mary Oliver’s “Imagine”, which places imagination and wonder at the heart of our efforts to understand the world. At its best, science capitalizes on imagination and wonder, and becomes a fulfilling pursuit whether you are a professional or not. In the absence of those essential, fundamental traits, science as a job becomes a stifling activity that does not repay the opportunity costs of its pursuit.
I don't care for adjectives, yet the world
fills me with them.
And even beyond what I see, I imagine more. Continue reading "Sunday Poem"
Not much science in this week’s Sunday poem, but since Monday is the U.S. Memorial Day, and since Walt Whitman’s birthday is May 31st, I think an appropriate selection is the following passage, one of the most sublime sentences in all American poetry, from Walt Whitman’s memorial poem, “When Lilac’s Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, originally designated to honor the U.S. Civil War Dead. In this passage, Whitman breaks a sprig of lilac as a memorial offer to the assassinated Abraham Lincoln and all of those fallen in the Civil War.
In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle – and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.
If you’re not familiar with this great poem, go read the entire thing here. And if you are familiar with the poem, go read it again.
In honor of Walt Whitman’s May birthday, this week’s poem is “There Was a Child Went Forth”, which captures both Whitman’s omnivorous spirit, as well as the innate curiosity of children that lies, or at least should lie, at the root of every scientist’s drive to comprehend the world.
Contrary to what many think about the practice of science, the key to scientific success is not to master some authoritative corpus of knowledge; it is to know how to ask questions. The ever quotable Richard Feynman put it this way: “We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt.”
Children seem to naturally have this ability to recognize that they don’t know something, and to leave themselves open to new discoveries about what is real, and “the thought if after all it should prove unreal.” Continue reading “Sunday Poem”
This week it’s more of a prose poem, from the great Argentine author Julio Cortázar’s book From the Observatory. This book is a stream of reflections on two scientific images, one of an 18th century Indian prince who built a marvelous, Escher-like obsveratory; and the other of the epic migration of the European eel from continental freshwater streams to the Sargasso sea.
In this passage, the Indian prince Jai Singh “confronts the cosmic bull”, and is portrayed, not completely without irony, as someone who uses the scientific tools of his eccentric observatory to break free of human slavery to nature, or human slavery to superstition in the face of nature’s overwhelming force. In the book, Jai Singh stands in contrast to the pedantry of those myopic scientists who study the minutiae of the eels without any appreciation for the majestic scope of the eels’ life cycle.
Jai Singh must have dreamed something else raised like a guerrilla of the absolute against the astrological fatality that guided his lineage, that decided births and deflowerings and wars; his instruments stood up to a destiny imposed from outside, the pentagon of galaxies and constellations colonizing the free man, his stone and bronze devices were the machine guns of real science, the great reply to the total image facing the tyranny of planets and conjunctions and ascendants;
the man Jai Singh, little prince of a declining kingdom, stood up to the many-eyed dragon, answered the inhuman fatality as a mortal provoking the cosmic bull, decided to channel the astral light, trap it in retorts and spirals and ramps, clipped the nails that bled his species;
and all that he measured and classified and named, all his astronomy on illustrated parchments was an astronomy of the image, a science of the total image, a leap from the brink to the present, of the astrological slave to the man who stands in dialogue with the stars.