Tag Archives: Emmy Noether

The poetry of physics from Canada’s Perimeter Institute

Dedicated to foundational theoretical physics, the Perimeter Institute (PI) has an active outreach programme. In their latest ‘newsletter’ (received via email on September 19, 2018) highlights poetry written by scientists, (from the ’12 poignant poems’ webpage),

It can be said that science and poetry share the common purpose of revealing profound truths about the universe and our place in it.

Physicist Paul Dirac, a known curmudgeon, would have dismissed that idea as hogwash.

“The aim of science is to make difficult things understandable in a simpler way; the aim of poetry is to state simple things in an incomprehensible way,” Dirac grouched to a colleague.  “The two are incompatible.”

The colleague to whom Dirac was grumbling, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was a lover of poetry who dabbled in it himself — as did, it turns out, quite a few great physicists, past and present. Physicists have often turned to poetry to express ideas for which there are no equations.

Here’s a look at some of the loveliest stanzas from physicists past and present, plus a few selections of rhyming silliness that get an A+ for effort.

Considering his reported distaste for poetry, it seems Dirac may have committed a few lines to verse. A four-line poem credited to Dirac laments the belief that, once past the age of 30, physicists have already passed their peak intellectual years.

dirac poetry

Perhaps the most prolific of all the poetic physicists was the Scottish genius [James Clerk Maxwell] whose equations for electromagnetism have been called “the second great unification in physics” (second to Isaac Newton’s marriage of physics and astronomy).

Maxwell’s best-known poetic composition is “Rigid Body Sings,” a ditty he used to sing while playing guitar, which is based on the classic Robbie Burns poem “Comin’ Through the Rye” (the inspiration for the title of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye). In terms of melding poetry and physics, however, Maxwell’s geekiest composition might be “A Problem in Dynamics,” which shows both his brilliance and sense of humour.

james clerk maxwell poem

Read the full poem

If Maxwell’s “A Problem in Dynamics,” is a little too technical for your mathematical comfort level, his fellow Scottish physicist William J.M. Rankine penned poetry requiring only a rudimentary understanding of algebra (and a peculiar understanding of love).

rankine physics poem

Richard Feynman was known for both his brilliance and his eclectic lifestyle, which included playing the bongos, safe-cracking, and, occasionally, writing poetry.

Read the full poem

Although theoretical physics is her specialty, Shohini Ghose is a true polymath. Born in India, educated in the US, and now a multi-award-winning professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, Ghose has delivered popular talks on subjects ranging from climate change to sexism in science. She recently joined Perimeter Institute as an affiliate researcher and an Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Specialist. On top of all that, she is a poet too.

Shohini poem

English mathematician James Joseph Sylvester was a prolific scholar whose collected works on matrix theory, number theory, and combinatorics fill four (large) volumes. In his honour, the Royal Society of London bestows the Sylvester Medal every two years to an early-career mathematician who shows potential to make major breakthroughs, just as the medal’s namesake did. It is only fitting that Sylvester’s best known work of poetry is an ode to a missing part of an algebraic formula.

sylvester poem physics

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Sonali Mohapatra is a Chancellor’s PhD Student at the University of Sussex and an alumna of the Perimeter Scholars International master’s program (during which she sang on the nationally broadcast CBC Radio program Ideas). She’s also the author of the poetry compilation Leaking Ink and runs an international magazine on creative resistance called Carved Voices. In her spare time — which, remarkably, she occasionally has — she delivers motivational talks on physics, feminism, and the juxtaposition of the personal and the professional.

sonali poem

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William Rowan Hamilton was an extraordinary mathematician whose research had long-lasting implications for modern physics. As a poet, he was a bit of a hack, at least in the eyes of his friend and renowned poet William Wordsworth. Hamilton often sent his poems to Wordsworth for feedback, and Wordsworth went to great pains to provide constructive criticism without hurting his friend’s feelings. Upon reading one of Hamilton’s poems, Wordsworth replied: “I do venture to submit to your consideration, whether the poetical parts of your nature would not find a field more favourable to their exercise in the regions of prose.” Translation: don’t quit your day job, Bill. Here’s one of Hamilton’s better works — a tribute to another giant of mathematics and physics, Joseph Fourier.

hamilton poetry

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For some lyrical physicists, poetry is not always a hobby separate from scientific research. For some (at least one), poetry is a way to present scientific findings. In 1984, Australian physicist J.W.V. Storey published a research paper — The Detection of Shocked Co/ Emission from G333.6-0.2 — as a 38-stanza poem. To any present-day researchers reading this: we dare you to try it.

storey poem

Caltech physicist John Preskill is one of the world’s leading researchers exploring quantum information and the application of quantum computing to big questions about spacetime. Those are extremely complex topics, but Preskill also has a knack for explaining complicated subjects in accessible (and, occasionally, rhyming) terms. Here’s a snippet from a poem he wrote called “Quantum Cryptography.”

john preskill poems

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Nitica Sakharwade is a PhD student who, when not tackling foundational puzzles in quantum mechanics and quantum information, writes poetry and performs spoken word. In fact, she’s performing at the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word in October 2018. Though her poems don’t always relate to physics, when they do, they examine profound ideas like the Chandrasekhar limit (the mass threshold that determines whether a white dwarf star will explode in a cataclysmic supernova).

chandrasekhar limit

David Morin is a physics professor at Harvard who has become somewhat legendary for sprucing up his lessons with physics-based limericks. Some are quite catchy and impressively whittle a complex subject down to a set of simple rhyming verses, like the one below about Emmy Noether’s landmark theorem.

noether symmetries

Other poems by Morin — such as this one, explaining how a medium other than a vacuum would affect a classic experiment — border on the absurd.

morin poems harvard

Lastly, we can’t resist sharing a poem by the brilliant Katharine Burr Blodgett, a physicist and chemist who, among other achievements, invented non-reflective “invisible” glass. That glass became very useful in filmmaking and was first put to use by Hollywood in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. After she retired from a long and successful career at General Electric (where she also pioneered materials to de-ice airplane wings, among many other innovations), she amused herself by writing quirky poetry.

katharine burr blodget

I’d usually edit a bit in an effort to drive readers over to the Perimeter website but I just can’t bear to cut this up. Thank you to Colin Hunter for compiling the poems and the write ups. For anyone who wants to investigate the Perimeter Institute further and doesn’t have a PhD in physics, there’s the Slices of PI webpage featuring “fun, monthly dispatches about science designed for social sharing.”

Teaching physics visually

Art/science news  is usually about a scientist using their own art or collaborating with an artist to produce pieces that engage the public. This particular May 23, 2012 news item by Andrea Estrada on the physorg.com website offers a contrast when it highlights a teaching technique integrating visual arts with physics for physics students,

Based on research she conducted for her doctoral dissertation several years ago, Jatila van der Veen, a lecturer in the College of Creative Studies at UC [University of  California] Santa Barbara and a research associate in UC Santa Barbara’s physics department, created a new approach to introductory physics, which she calls “Noether before Newton.” Noether refers to the early 20th-century German mathematician Emmy Noether, who was known for her groundbreaking contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics.

Using arts-based teaching strategies, van der Veen has fashioned her course into a portal through which students not otherwise inclined might take the leap into the sciences — particularly physics and mathematics. Her research appears in the current issue of the American Educational Research Journal, in a paper titled “Draw Your Physics Homework? Art as a Path to Understanding in Physics Teaching.”

The May 22, 2012 press release on the UC Santa Barbara website provides this detail about van der Veen’s course,

While traditional introductory physics courses focus on 17th-century Newtonian mechanics, van der Veen takes a contemporary approach. “I start with symmetry and contemporary physics,” she said. “Symmetry is the underlying mathematical principle of all physics, so this allows for several different branches of inclusion, of accessibility.”

Much of van der Veen’s course is based on the principles of “aesthetic education,” an approach to teaching formulated by the educational philosopher Maxine Greene. Greene founded the Lincoln Center Institute, a joint effort of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Lincoln Center. Van der Veen is quick to point out, however, that concepts of physics are at the core of her course. “It’s not simply looking at art that’s involved in physics, or looking at beautiful pictures of galaxies, or making fractal art,” she said. “It’s using the learning modes that are available in the arts and applying them to math and physics.”

Taking a visual approach to the study of physics is not all that far-fetched. “If you read some of Albert Einstein’s writings, you’ll see they’re very visual,” van der Veen said. “And in some of his writings, he talks about how visualization played an important part in the development of his theories.”

Van der Veen has taught her introductory physics course for five years, and over that time has collected data from one particular homework assignment she gives her students: She asks them to read an article by Einstein on the nature of science, and then draw their understanding of it. “I found over the years that no one ever produced the same drawing from the same article,” she said. “I also found that some students think very concretely in words, some think concretely in symbols, some think allegorically, and some think metaphorically.”

Adopting arts-based teaching strategies does not make van der Veen’s course any less rigorous than traditional introductory courses in terms of the abstract concepts students are required to master. It creates a different, more inclusive way of achieving the same end.

I went to look at van der Veen’s webpage on the UC Santa Barbara website to find a link to this latest article (open access) of hers and some of her other projects. I have taken a brief look at the Draw your physics homework? article (tir is 53 pp.) and found these images on p. 29 (PDF) illustrating her approach,

Figure 5. Abstract-representational drawings. 5a (left): female math major, first year; 5b (right): male math major, third year. Used with permission. (downloaded from the American Educational Research Journal, vol. 49, April 2012)

Van der Veen offers some context on the page preceding the image, p. 28,

Two other examples of abstract-representational drawings are shown in Figure 5. I do not have written descriptions, but in each case I determined that each student understood the article by means of verbal explanation. Figure 5a was drawn by a first-year math major, female, in 2010. She explained the meaning of her drawing as representing Einstein’s layers from sensory input (shaded ball at the bottom), to secondary layer of concepts, represented by the two open circles, and finally up to the third level, which explains everything below with a unified theory. The dashes surrounding the perimeter, she told me, represent the limit of our present knowledge. Figure 5b was drawn by a third-year male math major. He explained that the brick-like objects in the foreground are sensory perceptions, and the shaded portion in the center of the drawing, which appears behind the bricks, is the theoretical explanation which unifies all the experiences.

I find the reference to Einstein and visualization compelling in light of the increased interest (as I perceive it) in visualization currently occurring in the sciences.