The greatest physicists rewrite the rules of our universe to fit not only what is observable but what is possible. Many of their experiments take place solely as thought experiments, our ability to test their theories beyond our scientific capability. They use creativity to expand our understanding. Isn’t that what poets do as well?
Einstein’s theory of relativity says essentially that all motion must be defined relative to a frame of reference, that space and time are relative, rather than absolute concepts. There’s lots of other mumbo-jumbo about speed of light in a vacuum and gravity bending in space near black holes, but the idea that time and space are relative is a concept explored by artists as well and part of what the humanities does in a different way. In reading a sonnet or poem from 300 years ago, a 1,000 years ago, we realize what it is to be human is the same now as it was then, space and time are relative.
Sarah Howe wrote a sonnet for Stephen Hawking and sent it to him. Her inspiration his book A Brief History of Time which came out in 1988. It sounds like she may share my obsession with sonnets if they have a gravitational pull for her….
In formal terms, “Relativity” is a sonnet, a form I started to think of as a sort of black hole exerting its own gravitational pull, compressing an everywhere into its little room. Yet my sonnet starts with light not as it exists in the large-scale world of gravity but at the subatomic level of quantum physics. It is the grail of contemporary physicists to make these two irreconcilable theories speak to one another.
Sarah Howe, Paris Review. October 2015
Try following my advice, the rules of Poetry Night (See my earlier blog post). Read the following sonnet twice. The first time, read it like a scientist, thinking about how the words relate to the rules of physics and specifically the untestable theory of relativity. The second time read it like a lover, thinking about how the words relate to explaining the mystery of love. Then ask yourself; which one makes more sense to you?
Bonus Points: Check out the link for the marvelous reading by Stephen Hawking himself. Its good stuff and a kick in the pants that it was recorded for National Poetry Day. Think Like a Poet!
Stephen Hawking reads Relativity by Sarah Howe
by Sarah Howe
for Stephen Hawking
When we wake up brushed by panic in the dark
our pupils grope for the shape of things we know.
Photons loosed from slits like greyhounds at the track
reveal light’s doubleness in their cast shadows
that stripe a dimmed lab’s wall—particles no more—
and with a wave bid all certainties goodbye.
For what’s sure in a universe that dopplers
away like a siren’s midnight cry? They say
a flash seen from on and off a hurtling train
will explain why time dilates like a perfect
afternoon; predicts black holes where parallel lines
will meet, whose stark horizon even starlight,
bent in its tracks, can’t resist. If we can think
this far, might not our eyes adjust to the dark?