On this day when many of us will be remembering the Challenger explosion, I've been thinking about scientific discoveries and disasters and how they inform our literature. I listened to Brian Greene on Fresh Air; these days, my mind isn't blown away by the possibilities that Physics offer. He talked about inflationary cosmology and repulsive gravity, and almost at the same time, I both thought of the potential for metaphor, and thrust the idea away, already tired of it. He said that every aspect of reality has to do with how particles move. Greene said that matter must repeat, which is why we have to accept the possibility of alternate universes.
My friend and I were talking about how our love of the genre of Science Fiction made us more open to various ideas than our friends who are more committed to fields of science unpolluted by fiction. And Brian Greene would remind us that many items that we use daily, like cell phones, are made possible by ideas that come to us from Physics. A review of his latest book in The New York Times says, "Now, Mr. Greene points out, nobody’s agog — and you’re apt to be walking around with a hand-held device that has a GPS, the accuracy of which can be traced to Einstein. Perhaps future generations will similarly take in stride the thought of parallel universes — and not just the kinds that are a mainstay of comic books and science fiction."
But really, it's comic books and sci fi (like the Star Trek franchise) that prepares our brains for the more difficult ideas that Greene presents. I must confess to preferring to hear him talk to reading him. And some of my favorite science-tinged poems have been inspired by him.
Here's one from years ago when I first heard Greene talk to Terry Gross. I found myself intrigued by string theory and quarks and neutrinos. After hearing him talk, I wrote a series of poems; this one was published in The Powhatan Review:
If they can find the last neutrino,
why can’t I find you?
We live in a world where the Internet weaves
us together, keeps us touching across invisible
connections, helps long lost loves find
each other. Refugees return to burned homes,
evidence of their existence scorched from the earth,
yet still, they find their families.
I know you are not dead, but just untraceable.
Occasionally I get postcards from places
you’ve long left behind. Sometimes I meet
someone who has crossed your path
and lived to tell the tale. Those tungsten men
of beards and guns and fishing, the iron women
who build log cabins with their bare hands,
these are the heavy metal humans
who can slow you down, force you to interact.
Most of us you pass through, and most of us never
notice. Why did my skin sense your touch?
Why can’t I forget you? I need to turn
to those who yearn for me, but I long to shed
my mass, find my missing matter.
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