March 1, 2005

neutrinos, they are very small

every subdivision of physics and astronomy has a little poem or literary verse with which it is always accompanied. in cosmology, the chapter about the eventual fate of the universe always starts off with "fire and ice" by robert frost:

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 know that for destruction ice
is also great
and would suffice.

you see, the friedmann equation predicts that either the universe will expand forever and get really cold, or it will recollapse on itself, heating up as it does so. well gee golly, using this poem is so clever! because it happens to be just like what might happen in the real world, so let’s put it in every single astronomy textbook from now on!

and how could we learn relativity without this quasi-accurate gem from h. g. wells' the time machine?:
"there are really four dimensions, three which we call the three planes of space, and a fourth, time. there is, however, a tendency to draw an unreal distinction between the former three dimensions and the latter, because it happens that our consciousness moves intermittently in one direction along the latter from the beginning to the end of our lives."

"that," said a very young man, making spasmodic efforts to relight his cigar over the lamp; "that..very clear indeed."

then there is neutrino physics, and, of course, "cosmic gall" by john updike:

neutrinos, they are very small.
they have no charge and have no mass
and do not interact at all.
the earth is just a silly ball
to them, through which they simply pass,
like dustmaids down a drafty hall
or photons through a sheet of glass.
they snub the most exquisite gas,
ignore the most substantial wall,
cold shoulder steel and sounding brass,
insult the stallion in his stall,
and, scorning barriers of class,
infiltrate you and me. like tall
and painless guillotines they fall
down through our heads into the grass.
at night, they enter at nepal
and pierce the lover and his lass
from underneath the bed—you call
it wonderful; i call it crass.

this one is actually my favorite because updike wrote it about the neutrino, not about something that just happened to vaguely apply to the neutrino. plus, neutrinos are not the most famous, showiest particle. they don't get the big sneaker-endorsement deals, and that's ok with them. they're the "just happy to be here" particle. not showing off, not falling behind. not interacting with anything. it makes me happy that he noticed.

which brings me to my point, aspiring writers take notice: compose a verse about an obscure area of physics and the world shall be yours. your name will live on as a footnote under the chapter titles in countless textbooks; and your work repeated in lectures by an even larger number of goofy professors who think they are being clever. it doesn't even have to be a poem, it might just be a snappy saying, like "you can never step in the same river twice" (time direction) or "abandon all hope ye who enter here" (black holes). why shouldn't there be poems about neutrinos anyway? there are billions of them flying through your body at this very instant, and only if you live to be 80 is it likely that a single neutrino will interact with one of your atoms! there are doubtless hundreds of similes and metaphors and stuff that you can make about this. i don't know what they are, because i'm not arty or creative, but i know that they must exist.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Ryan. Is this a scientific enough poem?


Imagine how long you have been
Riding the ever-revolving
Cycle of existence
To be revealed as a flower,
Or a wolf,
The Dharmakaya reflected in her eyes.

Each particle of wolf, cloud, rock, flower,
Was spewn out of our
Ancient, spinning sun
As conditions arose and ripened
With the momentum
Of the great,

Being born and dying,
Flower and you,
Empty phenomena rolling on
Inseparable from the whole,
Moving and becoming