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.
Rae Armantrout’s poetry is at the frontline of a contemporary poetics that is exploring the intersections of poetry and science, with much of her work investigating these intersections alongside examinations of language and ontological experience. Among his many achievements, astrophysicist Brian Keating created the experimental design of the telescope that was used in the recent BICEP2 project in the South Pole, which gained international attention for seeming to verify the existence of gravitational waves left over from the Big Bang, thus providing new insights into cosmic inflation and quantum gravity. The undergraduate literature and physics students in Armantrout and Keating’s Poetry for Physicists course are discussing shared concepts in poetry and science, individual poems, and essays on physics by Feynman and Brian Greene, among others. Among the assigned reading are the first and last chapters of A Strange Theory of Light and Matter. I based the ’pataphysical sex scene in my novella on the language of coupling and quarks in the last chapter of Feynman’s book. The chapter addresses an intermediate particle that cannot be seen by itself but, when in a three-way coupling between the three types of intermediate particles, the particles and photons are thought to be interconnected as different aspects of the same thing.
Armantrout and Keating’s course represents a pedagogical and transdisciplinary coupling as well, one that is expanding their disciplines, reflecting, perhaps, how the known universe itself is expanding at accelerated rates. From Margaret Cavendish, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Louis Zukofsky and others, including many contemporary authors, writers have long considered the relationship of poetry and science, and scientists have long looked to poetry to say the unsayable.
In Poetry for Physicists, Armantrout and Keating are teaching a range of works from writers including Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Rudyard Kipling, Shelia Tobias, Ron Silliman, Ezra Pound, John Keats, William Blake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Graham Foust, William Carlos Williams, Lorine Niedecker, James Gleick, George Herbert, Allen Ginsberg, Jorie Graham, Christian Bök, Jackson Mac Low, Ron Silliman, Harryette Mullen, Edgar Allen Poe, Lucretius, Thomas Nagle, Heinrich Pas, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, John Updike, Sylvia Plath, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, Kay Ryan, John Ashbery, Brent Cunningham, Andrew Joron, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Ron Padgett. Some of Armantrout’s own poems will also be discussed. The course is thematically organized, covering topics such as measurability and beauty, the role of metaphor in mathematics and science, relativity and the relationship of geometry to matter, chaos and complexity, consciousness and the role of the observer, inflation and the multiverse, quantum weirdness, neutrino oscillations-polarization, and chirality. In our discussions for this commentary about the course, Armantrout notes:
I look forward to teaching poems I don’t normally get to discuss in my writing courses. We’re going to start out with Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider” (at which point Brian will spring into action with a power point discussion on the symmetries of spider webs), Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Blake’s “The Tyger” (symmetry again), etc.
A goal of the course, Armantrout explains, is for the science students to become more literate in poetry and for the literature students to understand principles in physics. One of the assignments has the students writing a poem illustrating either the parsimony principle, also known as Ockham’s Razor, where economy and succinctness are used in problem solving, or self-organization, the development of complexity from the iteration of a rule. Self-organization plays a central role in fractal mathematics and Benoît B. Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry. It is also explored in Alice Fulton’s essay, “Fractal Poetics: Adaptation and Complexity,” and Stephen Wolfram’s theories on cellular automata, among other settings. I see both the parsimony principle and self-organization present in Armantrout’s poetry, with her minimalistic, compressed forms often inhabiting a philosophical complexity developed from a thought or experience, however casual or quotidian. After writing the poem illustrating either the parsimony principle or self-organization, the students in Armantrout and Keating’s class will write a paper explaining their understanding of the concept and how they applied it in composing the poem. In the assignment, physics meets poetry and poetics.
Another goal of the course, one in which Armantrout is particularly interested, is to investigate how measurement and beauty operate in poetry. She says:
We want to have an open discussion of questions such as whether poetry (or the quality of poetry) can be measured, whether beauty can be defined, etc. Ironically, I think that poets and artists have a much more cautious, troubled, perhaps nuanced (?) response to these questions than scientists do. […]
I went to see the movie Particle Fever last night. It’s about the long search leading to the discovery of the Higgs boson. I was struck by how often various physicists, both theoretical and experimental, used the word “beauty” (or beautiful). One of them said that aesthetic intuition drives physics. Human brains evolved for pattern recognition. It’s what we do. And artists, including poets, often produce patterns. What’s more, it could be said that our search for “meaning” (in the humanities) is another form of the search for patterns. Clearly neither art nor philosophy matches science in the rigor of its search for “truth” or verifiability. Still, physics (in particular) and poetry (in particular) share at least three affinities:
1) They value compression or concision—the most possible meaning per expression, whether that expression is an equation or a stanza.
2) They share an interest in symmetry (or, at minimum, some sort of balance).
3) They share a taste for the strange, the anomalous, the unknown. That may be clearer in physics than in poetry. Remember, however, how Keats advocated for “negative capability”: the ability to remain in uncertainties and mysteries without getting irritable. Isn’t that capability necessary in good science and good poetry? I think a good poet or a good scientist is someone who is excited when she/he sees or intuits something they don’t yet understand.
In addition to providing a framework where the affinities of poetry and physics are explored, the course is offering Armantrout and Keating an opportunity to examine pedagogical differences in the humanities and the sciences and to alter how they teach poetry and physics in the context of this shared curricular space. Armantrout says:
Brian included an interesting scholarly article about a pedagogical experiment done in the 80s. A number of senior faculty in physics and engineering volunteered to take a one week intensive upper-division level course on Chaucer and Wordsworth. They kept journals about what they found difficult and what they found enjoyable. It turned out that the ambiguity of interpretation wasn’t their largest obstacle. They tended to find the way information is presented in a humanities class off putting. They are more used to processing information visually and are uncomfortable listening to someone speak at length. They also expect information to be presented hierarchically, that is, from most basic to most complex. One said that doing science is like building a skyscraper while the humanities seem to be one big subdivision. You can start anywhere. You don’t have to know anything about Chaucer to study Shakespeare or Dickinson. There is nothing I can do about that latter problem—if it is a problem. But I do try to give them ways to approach any poem. I tell them to do what they might do with their data: look for patterns. But I also tell them to look for and note what stands out as odd. Don’t reach too quickly for interpretation. Consider the poem as a system and look at what it’s doing. We’re having some luck with that. And I am also trying, believe it or not, to present some information visually. By that I mean that I created a (simple) flow chart to explain (I hope) what was going on in a difficult essay. That was both difficult and fun for me.
One topic for Armantrout evoked by these explorations is the under-acknowledged prescience of literature to anticipate breakthroughs in science, a point that speaks to my own interests in how art, literature, and science not only explore many of the same ideas but have undergone many of the same breakthroughs at the same time, though often without those involved being aware of each other’s ideas.
I was first introduced to this phenomenon when I attended a symposium in the early 2000s at the Aspen Institute on art, science, and spirituality with panelists that included comic book writer Grant Morrison, chaos mathematician Ralph Abraham, composer and multi-media artist DJ Spooky, media theorist Douglass Rushkoff, cultural theorist Erik Davis, and others, including neurosurgeon Leonard Shlain, who presented from his book, Art and Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time, and Light (Perennial, 1991). Shlain’s book charts breakthroughs in visual art and science such as the popularity of realism in art coinciding with classical mechanics and the development of Cubism coinciding with the theory of relativity. The book prompted me to extend his inquiries, leading me to ask in my essay, “Quantum Poetics: Writing the Speed of Light,” if Gertrude Stein was writing at the speed of light. In discussing writers who have anticipated breakthroughs in science, Armantrout says:
I just bought a book called The Poetry of the Universe [Anchor Books, 1996]. It’s about math. But if mathematicians and scientists are wont to invoke “poetry,” poets have a long history of speculating on the nature of ultimate reality. Of course there’s Lucretius, and there’s also Edgar Allen Poe’s book-length prose poem, Eureka, which is about the beginning of the universe. It anticipates the Big Bang and dark energy. It was ridiculed at the time of its release, but the New York Times recently ran a piece on how amazingly prescient it was.
What breakthroughs in the sciences could our poems and poetics, either consciously or without intent, be anticipating? When it comes to breakthroughs in poetry and science happening around the same time, how do we determine which breakthrough came first? Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The question of whether it is art influencing science, science influencing art, or if practitioners of both disciplines are coming to the same breakthroughs independently of one another speaks to the creative coupling that is present in both poetry and Feynman’s quantum electrodynamics. The reason why it may be impossible to determine which breakthrough comes first, the chicken or the egg (the impossibility of the answer is what the question is meant to demonstrate), is because the question cleverly relies upon outdated understandings of space and time. In my imagination, I am visualizing Gertrude Stein asking that same question in the language of poetry, her light speed: The question is this, which came which, the chicken or the chicken. This is the question and the egg of course.