One of my first encounters with poetry that overtly addressed theoretical physics and cosmology was Frederick Seidel’s book, The Cosmos Poems (FSG, 2000), which I read, without any knowledge about the author, as soon as it was published. This would have been a year after I graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, when I was teaching innumerable sections of freshman composition and a literature course in fiction. In my copy of The Cosmos Poems, the corner of the page of the poem, “Who the Universe Is,” is turned down, and I drew a small star on the corner. Or is that an x?
It is not every day that after your science-informed literary reading, you, the other writers who read science-informed work, and the audience for the event climb through a dog door into a small, astronomical observatory that was constructed in the art gallery where the reading took place to see a live-feed projection of the dog star Sirius — the brightest star in the night sky and so nicknamed due to its containment in the constellation, Canis Major — from a telescope mounted on the roof of a nearby science education center.
I began this commentary by writing about poetry and quantum supercomputers as well as the failure of Western science from before Democritus to the present day in perpetuating the belief in elementary particles, spanning from the atom as the central concept of materialism in Greek philosophy to the open and closed strings in contemporary string theory. (More on this later.)
I have often thought of Werner Heisenberg’s interpretation of quantum mechanics as the most conceptually radical of the breakthroughs in theoretical physics to emerge in the last and current century, in part, due to its claim that physical reality cannot be observed. This claim challenged Isaac Newton’s classical mechanics and the scientific method, which assumed that physical reality can be observed and tested and that principles of nature can be determined.