Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Updike on neutrinos

In memory of John Updike, who died yesterday (see the obituary and an appraisal in the New York Times) here is his famous, and for the most part accurate, poem on that most fascinating of fundamental particles:
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 through 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.
“Cosmic Gall”, from Telephone Poles and Other Poems, John Updike, Knopf, 1960.

For me, it's the comparison to “photons through a sheet of glass” that really sells the poem. (This may be more of a physicist's than a literary critic's remark, but bear with me.) Neutrinos' behaviour --- almost never interacting --- seems unaccountably strange, but suddenly the reference to light jolts you as you think, hang on, I already know that light goes straight through glass, which is also solid, and come to think of it that is peculiar too. It's a remarkable effect: neutrinos suddenly become more accountable, and an everyday phenomenon becomes more noteworthy and distinct.

OK, so in terms of his achievement as a writer, it's not up there with the four “Rabbit” novels. But when it comes to making particle physics accessible, I'll take all the help I can get.

6 comments:

Earwicker said...

Thanks for that. What a great poem.

I didn't realise you were a Rabbit fan. While it is a less "significant" work of literature, I can't go past The Witches of Eastwick. If there were witches, that is exactly how they would be.

Bruce Yabsley said...

The Rabbit books are the only ones of his novels that I've read, in fact. As well as having my horizons broadened more generally, I remember thinking when reading them: OK I get it, I understand what Big Books are for now; I see what the fuss is about.

There's a sequel to Witches that came out just last year --- I don't know if you've seen it; reviews were mixed --- and it was reminding me that I really should read the original. I think I'm far enough away from the film now that I could read the book fresh, without prejudice.

Heather said...

The SMH included a quote of his that I love :" I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules." It helps me voice and justify my Anglicanism! See - it's not boring or a cop out but exciting.

Earwicker said...

The sequel is called The Widows of Eastwick, and like you I have read several reviews that were luke-warm at best.

On the one hand, the grounds on which the reviewers disliked Widows would probably also have caused them to dislike Witches.

On the other hand, it is hard to imagine Widows having anything like the verve of Witches, given Terrorist and his other later books.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Heather: It's not a defence of Anglican churchmanship that would have occurred to me, but right now I guess we need all the help we can get.

BTW, Ben Myers has a post on Updike's theology, which you may wish to check out. It mostly goes beyond my knowledge, so I can't comment on it too much. I was aware of the interest in Barth, of course; not sure about some of the other points.

earwicker: “the grounds on which the reviewers disliked Widows would probably also have caused them to dislike Witches” --- OK, that's useful to know. Whether I'll make it to Widows is perhaps too distant a question anyway; I should just go out and buy and read Witches already. I know I want to.

Not Richard Feynmann said...

I hate to pop anyone's bubble but light doesn't go through glass without interacting. In fact, the photon that emerges from glass isn't the 'same' photon as the one that emerges.
A photon interacts with electrons in the glass but don't impart enough energy to kick an electron up into the next energy level, and so the electron re-emits the absorbed energy as a photon in the same direction and speed.

The analogy between photons and neutrinos is not a particularly good one but an excellent way of sparking discussion.