Amy Catanzano

Quantum poetics


“Poetics as a Theory of Everything." Maria Damon and Ira Livingston.
“Poetics as a Theory of Everything,” cross-stitched by Maria Damon and quoting Ira Livingston. Damon made the piece to serve as the cover image for Livingston’s book, Poetics as a Theory of Everything, forthcoming, 2014. Image courtesy of Ira Livingston and Maria Damon.

One of the central unified field theories of quantum gravity is string theory or superstring theory, where spacetime is conceived of as an ambiguous ecology. In string theory, the known universe is thought to be part of a larger wilderness of universes, the multiverse, which is comprised of multiple and perhaps infinite dimensions of space and time that are created by collisions between subatomic, vibrating membranes of energy known as open and closed strings. The theory defines the evolution of space and matter from the connections between these vibrating membranes of energy. String theorists aim to reconcile quantum mechanics and relativity into a single description of physical reality that is often referred to in contemporary physics as a Theory of Everything.

Upon reading Christine Wertheim’s mUtter-bAbel (Counterpath Books, 2014), where Wertheim tells the “story of language and some bodies of the word made flesh in a child’s imagination” through visual poems often highlighting the letter “o” and that sonically treat words as “vocal organs,” I thought about the open and closed strings in string theory and wondered if the author was—consciously or without intent—responding to the colliding, subatomic, vibrating membranes of energy that string theorists think create the multiple dimensions of the multiverse.

Maybe logic

"Matrix Mechanics" by Kim Goldberg first appeared in the Scientific Wonders issu
"Matrix Mechanics" by Kim Goldberg first appeared in the Scientific Wonders issue of Rampike, Vol. 20, No. 2. Image courtesy of Kim Goldberg.

Erwin Schrödinger developed the thought experiment of Schrödinger’s Cat—where a cat, sealed in a box, is both alive and dead at the same time in a quantum entanglement until an observer looks at the cat, at which point the cat is either alive or dead—to criticize quantum mechanics by showing how the theory breaks down at larger scales and cannot logically represent reality.


Collage I made of the The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Figure 88 in the b
Collage I made of the The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Figure 88 in the book, and QED Rules (courtesy of wikipedia).

In Richard P. Feynman’s book, A Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton University Press, 1985), collecting his lectures on quantum electrodynamics, an agreement between quantum mechanics and relativity is attempted by describing interactions between light (photons) and matter (electrons), which are thought to travel to and from anywhere in the universe at any time. Like other quantum field theories of physics such as string theory, quantum electrodynamics proposes that spacetime cannot be defined by the laws that once conceived of time as though it was an arrow moving through a distinct past, present, and future. Space is no longer conceived of as though its points could be connected by lines that do not exist in the natural world. A Strange Theory of Light and Matter is one of the foundational texts assigned in Rae Armantrout and Brian Keating’s breakthrough course, Poetry for Physicists, currently underway at the University of California at San Diego.

Physics of the impossible

Lorentzian wormhole, courtesy of wikipedia, with text I added to the image.
Lorentzian wormhole, courtesy of wikipedia, with text I added to the image.

If a poem could exist on a rocket ship traveling at the speed of light where, in Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, space compresses, mass increases, and time slows, what kind of poem might it be? According to the theory of general relativity, which applies at cosmological scales in contrast to Einstein's earlier theory of special relativity that applies at local scales such as the solar system, profound distortions of spacetime would have to occur in a universe where the speed of light is constant.

In M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), created from the legal decision about the African slave ship named Zong where some 150 slaves were murdered by drowning so that the ship’s owners could collect the insurance money, the arrangements of text units in many sections of the book-length poem seem to inhabit aspects of Einstein’s conceptions of the universe.

Quantum computing is the new negative capability

Purported quantum supercomputer, courtesy of D-Wave via NPR
Purported quantum supercomputer, courtesy of D-Wave via NPR

While quantum supercomputers are still at the early stages of development, they will replace digital computers, making the processing of data billions of times faster. Whereas digital computers rely on the binary code of 1 and 0, quantum supercomputers use qubits that can exist as 1, as 0, and, most importantly, as any superposition of 1 and 0. The binary code in digital computing exists in one of two definite states: “You’re either with us or against us....”—George W. Bush, 2001. Unlike binary code, quantum supercomputer qubits behave as probabilistic superpositions of all states since they follow how subatomic particles behave in quantum mechanics.