Poetry for Physicists

  I don’t like to revisit the same issue – at least not directly – but, well, in an entry level undergraduate physics course I read a book entitled: Physics for Poets  and I’ve thought ever since that there should also be something called Poetry for Physicists

  This came to mind recently while reading reviews of a new production of the opera Doctor Atomic which follows events leading up to the explosion of the first nuclear weapon in 1945.  The libretto was assembled from historical documents by Peter Sellars.  The end of the opening chorus goes like this:

A weapon has been developed
that is potentially destructive
beyond the wildest nightmares
of the imagination;
a weapon so ideally suited
to sudden attack
that a country’s major cities
might be destroyed overnight
by an ostensibly friendly power.
This weapon has been created
not by the devilish inspiration
of some warped genius
but by the arduous labor
of thousands of normal men and women
working for the safety of their country.

  Certainly I am glad Hitler didn’t cook it up before we did and the several hundred thousand Japanese who perished probably did substitute for many thousands of Allied deaths.  Somebody was going to figure it out and we’re lucky it was us.

  What did take me aback though was that during a recent dress rehearsal the composer, John Adams, met with one of original scientists who told him: “I didn’t know a single person at Los Alamos who wasn’t enthusiastic about using it.  Not a single person.”

  I’m no military strategist and won’t attempt to suggest what better course of action might have been taken, but will state the obvious: with such terrible power must come responsibility and perspective.  I wonder how that responsibility would have been managed if those with even the vaguest notions of what the ramifications of E = MC2 might be were versed in, say, ancient Greek literature.

  For example, in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King the title character meets King Laius on the road to Thebes and kills him due to a prideful perception of disrespect.  Only later does he find that Laius was his biological father.  Or the Odyssey in which that title character lands himself a ten year detour by haughtily mocking the Cyclops who was able to use information contained in the taunt to exact revenge.

  It isn’t a lack of knowledge or information that got those fellows into trouble, it was arrogance and a lack of humility.  There is actually a name for the concept – hubris – and it is well to keep in mind.  (Like every time I open my mouth!)

  Perhaps those scientists would have been chastened by knowledge of the myth of Prometheus.  He was the Greek god who gave fire to our ancestors and was punished by Zeus for having done so.  Chained to a rock, his liver was torn out and eaten by eagles, only to have it grow back and torn out again day after day. 

  Or how about something more recent:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.   Robert Frost

  As the pace of change ever increases discerning vision will only become more critical and as Nathalie Sarraute wrote: “Poetry is what makes the invisible appear”.

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