Poet to Physicist in His Laboratory

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Poet to Physicist in His Laboratory

by David Ignatow

Come out and talk to me		           INVITATION
for then I know		
into what you are shaping.
Thinking is no more,
I read your thoughts for a symbol:
a movement towards an act.
I give up on thought                             RETHINKING
as I see your mind
leading into a mystery
deepening about you.
What are you trying to discover
beyond the zone of habit
and enforced convention?
There is the animus
that spends itself on images,
the most complex being
convention and habit.
You shall form patterns                         PRESCRIPTION
of research and bind yourself
to laws within your knowledge,
and always conscious of your limitations
make settlement,
with patience to instruct you
as it always does
in your research: an arrangement
spanning an abyss of time,
and you will find yourself patient
when you are questioned.

Comments and Notes[edit]

This poem is an invitation to a dialogue between the speaker (a poet) and a physicist. The title and first line make this explicit: "Poet to Physicist..." and Come out and talk to me. This is an invitation for the physicist to emerge from his laboratory and engage with the poet. The speaker wants to know the "shape" of the research occurring in this laboratory; the word shape is peculiar in this context. It could be the research, as we would normally expect, or it could refer to the physicist herself, oddly enough. To the poet, the physicist's word is full of symbols and mysteries. The attempt to build a bridge from the Humanities to the Sciences, as the speaker conveys it, is an invitation but also an acknowledgement of frustration. There are mysteries, perhaps encoded in the abstract symbols of mathematics, that the poet cannot access.

The dialogue quickly becomes a monologue or even a soliloquy. The physicist seems to have no voice of his own in this narrative poem. The title, then, may be more literal than it seems at first: a one-way discourse from poet to physicist caged in his cavernous and unfathomable laboratory. Initial curiosity turns into an "animus". The long final line of the poem turns into a prescriptive warning, a credo. It recalls the Church's inquiry into Galileo's innovative but heretical experiments of the heavens. This is a reactionary poet, perhaps, speaking from a position of fear and speaking with a disturbing turn of tone. We feel a growing sympathy for the unseen, voiceless physicist hemmed in from all sides. I like this poem because it is challenging and claims no simple moral agendas.

Questions for Discussion[edit]

1) What type of physicist does the poet refer to in the poem? Do you think the poet had a particular physicist in mind when he wrote the poem? Which of these physicists do you think he had in mind (Oppenheimer, Einstein, or Teller)?

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2) Is a physicist representative of the general scientific community, now or in the past? What type of scientist what you have addressed instead and why (e.g. molecular biologist, nuclear engineer, stem cell biologist, etc.)?

3) Do you think this is a realistic dialogue/monologue between these two role types? How would the dialogue differ if instead the physicist had been the biologist Charles Darwin?

4) Have you had a similar dialogue or experience when trying to explain your research/engineering/software project to a non-scientist? How about when trying to explain your research to your friend, your relative, your mother? What obstacles in perception and comprehension did you encounter? How did you overcome them?

Further Reading[edit]

The Man Who Saw Through Time, Loren Eiseley. About Sir Francis Bacon, scientific visionary under Queen Elizabeth I.

Any of numerous books about Robert Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb.

Genius: The life and Science of Richard Feynman, James Gleick. About Richard Feynman, his work on the atomic bomb, and his later speculations on physics.

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