Sunday, June 18, 2006

Background Noise #4

Artist/Album: Air/Moon Safari
Drink: Straccali Chianti

As a scientist by training and profession, and a poet by choice, I've recently been trying to merge the two in my head. What analogy to poetry can I see in science? Well, quite a bit actually. And, at its deepest science -- specifically physics -- is very much like poetry in the sense that it is simple, elegant and more profound than the sum of its parts.
And, in physics, there is nothing more poetic, more imaginative, more amazing than the theory of quantum mechanics. So, with that I will try to lay out a Quantum Theory of Poetry. I hope this to not be too technical, so I will try to define my terms as best as I can. I will also liberally link to external sources where you can read up on definitions, terms and ideas if you so desire.

First, what is quantum mechanics? Basically, quantum mechanics is the behavior of matter on the atomic or subatomic scale. It turns out, too, that it becomes very important in the understanding of the basic, fundamental workings of the cosmos, including the Big Bang. Why is there a need for a separate theory of matter for the subatomic realm? The reasons are many, but the main one is that subatomic particles behave differently, and sometimes surreally so, than those of our macro-cosmic lives.

And that brings me to poetry. A poem is a macro-alphabetic work (for lack of a better term); and by that I essentially mean that a poem consists of large accumulations of letters. The letters form words, which form sentences, which form stanzas, which form poems. In this realm, conventional thought and understanding prevail. Words have meanings, sentences have structures. It's all very ordered.

But, in the micro-alphabetic realm (letter-level) the rules break down. Words are the smallest intelligible unit of thought. Beyond that, all understanding is lost. Beyond the word-level, the classic laws of poetry no longer hold (e.g. meter, rhyme, spacing, alliteration, etc.). Though it is often advantageous, or prudent, to break down a poem to ever smaller divisions, the more this is done the more information is lost, or is unintelligble (just like in physics); until, ultimately, all information is lost and only a single unintelligible letter exists. These lone letters can tell us nothing about the context of where it is found, nor about the poem of which it is a part. A lone letter has no meaning beyond the simple sound it is a symbol for.

It is true that a poem is nothing more than a congregation of letters, each one unintelligible by itself; it is in the synergy of these letters, though, that a poem exists, not in the simple, individualistic symbolism of each letter. Without each letter, the poem would not exist; but without the poem’s framework and context, each letter would be meaningless. Likewise, however, without each letter a poem couldn't exist.

Obviously, at the word level, it can be an important technique of understanding to savor each word, to mull it over and let it take on a meaning beyond itself. Certainly, poets intend for that kind of analysis when they craft their poems and carefully choose certain words. But, beyond that, there is no point in breaking the poem down further. Like quantum mechanics, the rules have changed and conventional theories no longer apply.


In 1927 Werner Heisenberg made an important discovery based on quantum mechanics: that which he called The Uncertainty Principle. Basically, the principle states that there is a certain, limited degree of exactness that we (as observers) can know two different conjugate quantities of a subatomic particle (i.e. momentum and position). The more precise we are in measuring one, the less precise we know the other.

When I first learned of it, I thought The Uncertainty Principle was one of the weirdest ideas (though, it turns out, there are even weirder things in quantum mechanics). But, today it's become a normal part of quantum theory, one that is accepted and has been proven in endless experiments. What does this mean for poetry? Nothing, really, but could there be a Poetry Uncertainty Principle? I guess in a way, yes.

Poems are notorious for being obtuse. I don't mean those modern/experimental poems that are written purposely to make no sense. Even the most straight-forward poem can elicit different responses in different people; can mean different things. This is the Poetry Uncertainty Principle. There is a certain amount of uncertainty in the intent, the meaning, the understanding of a great poem. One person might latch onto the imagery and be comforted by the strong words, while another might be moved by the rhythm and lyrical quality; a third my like the interplay between the words, might simply enjoy moving the words around his mouth. Even the interpretations can vary. And, the great thing about a poem is the fact that there is no one right interpretation. The beauty of poetry is that each interpretation is correct. This is where the uncertainty lies. If two people read the same poem and come away with different interpretations, who is right? The answer is they both are.

The last part of the Quantum Theory of Poetry is the Poetry Exclusion Principle, which is a poetic corollary to the Pauli Exclusion Principle. Wolfgang Pauli's version states that no two identical fermions (or the form of matter that makes up everything we see) can inhabit the same quantum state simultaneously. In other words, two particles can't be in the same place at the same time. It seems self-evident, but it really is a very important principle that plays a large role in a huge number of physical phenomena including the large-scale stability of matter to the periodic table of elements.

What is the Poetry Exclusion Principle? This one is simple, but applies to the poet rather than the reader. No two poems should inhabit the same region of understanding. Or, to put it simpler, no two poems should be alike. The onus is on the poet to make sure she is creating something new; that she is not just regurgitating the same old poems. It is imperative that the poet be original, to exclude all other ideas, or else she will perish. This is the fundamental law of all of poetry. Be original.

That's it. That's the Quantum Theory of Poetry. Of course, this was just a little exercise in having fun with semantics and science, but the ideas are important. And if you forget everything else, please remember the Poetry Exclusion Principle. It is important to do it like no one else ever did. Just like Einstein and Heisenberg and Pauli and all the other great physicists and scientists of our time.

11 Comments:

Blogger christopher cunningham said...

a seriously great post. I will comment at length later today. I love string theory...

j.b's Quantum Theory Of Poetry.

should be a field of study...

4:32 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

yeah, i'm the professor and i'm gonna learn your ass a thing or two.

thanks, Chris. and thanks for the opportunity to do this. i truly enjoy it. i hope i don't come of as some kind of pompous douchebag. one or the other would be fine, but both pompous and douchebaggerly isn't acceptable.

i'm reading a great book right now called The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (his book An Elegant Universe should be required reading). it's very good. i love physics and cosmology (i have a minor in Astronomy) and can't seem to get enough to read about it.

9:11 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

nope, not pompous at all, but rather quite creative. and the study of this type of thing takes us a close to understanding ourselves as strange abberations and yet made up of the same stuff as the stars, the universe itself. it is also a freeing concept in that, as Hawking notes, the universe probably has no beginning or end, but always has been, bouncing from one "spherical" shape, contracting and then expanding to another, with the strings vibrating the whole time.

and I use the Heisenberg Principle for illustrating that we cannot 100% know anything, that nothing is certain except UNCERTAINTY. and to know one thing means to NOT know another, ofttimes.

(and I use the Pauli Principle to explain to myself how these idiots in their cars on the roads driving like blind autistic nutdiggers on their phones and blackberries do not KILL EACH OTHER ALL THE TIME: they cannot occupy the same space at the same time so the UNIVERSE wants em to NOT crash into each other...)

good stuff. be original. build on the work of the past. take their theories and make them better, stronger. and make the poem universal so that the various interpretations can be contained within their edges.

poems are the fermions of the artworld.

10:03 AM  
Blogger christopher cunningham said...

actually, in my mind I might be conflating the Uncertainty Principle with the Observer Effect, but still I think my point is valid inre: our ability to know, really know something. there are very few absolutes. there are some truths and many unknowns, and the closer we get, the further we really are.

10:08 AM  
Blogger j.b said...

Chris,
thanks, man. I like your observations, and the funny thing is that though the quantum world is spectacular and odd and surreal, AND doesn't really apply to the macro world, it still is a part of us. though the Uncertainty Principle is true for even macro molecules like people and cars and planets, the effect is so miniscule as to be negligible.

as far as getting it confused the observer effect, it's common. But, the two are related and share a common bond. the neat thing about the Uncertainty Principle is that the uncertainty involved isn't brought about by the observer but is INHERENT in the particle. Uncertainty is inherent in life.

Again, I'm glad you enjoyed the post and though it really was a farcical exercise in science and fun, it will -- hopefully -- elicit some thought.

12:41 PM  
Anonymous MOM C said...

J.B.
I really enjoyed your post. You put a very interesting, but hard to grasp, subject in terms even I could understand. And, the correlation to poetry was superb!

My first interest in this Quantum stuff came during a time when women my age transition into another part of their life. My transition brought on a frenzy of reading on subjects that I thought would bring me closer to my questions on who am I, and where do I belong in this world, and where am I going? I was told that a couple of Stephen Hawking's books might help so I tried very hard to get through them and actually found them very interesting but difficult to read for my poor brain. After muddling through that, I read the lives of various Saints, and finally decided that I should just live my life and enjoy my life and not take it so seriously. However, your post brought back my interest in the scientific and I think now that the "frenzy" is over, I can not only enjoy my life but also enjoy reading all the interesting but hard to understand scientific stuff.

Please excuse all the rambling, I just wanted you to know how much I enjoyed your post. Good job!

1:04 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

mom c-
thank you so much. your "transition", as you call it, is a great thing and pretty much sums up what happens to us all when we get that "mortal" feel about us.
this is what science really is about, i think, at its core: answering the questions of who are we, why are we here and how did we become who we are?
these answers are difficult and on a level utterly unanswerable, but science just keeps plugging along and discovering new things that might show how, but not why. and this is where poetry (and philosophy) comes in. poetry fills in the gaps where science fails!

i can suggest of number of books that are very in-depth but written so well (and in such gorgeous prose) as to make sense to the non-scientist. The Hawking books (specifically, A Brief History of Time) are great. Try Timothy Ferris's The Whole Shebang, and Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, also Michio Kaku's Hyperspace is a great read.

sorry for the list, but they're great books if you're interested.

thanks for your comments and i'm so glad that my post was able to inspire you, to stir something inside. that's all i hope to do.

happy reading.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Luis said...

Justin:

An excellent post: if anything, I will be heading to the library or bookstore to check out The Elegant Universe. I usually stayed away from science in school, but did enjoy Astronomy. The science of poetry...there is much to mull about in here.

8:15 PM  
Anonymous MOM C said...

Thanks for the response and the list J.B., I'll be on the lookout for those books and let you know how they work out for me.

8:29 AM  
Blogger Luis said...

Justin:

I didn't write down the title of all the books you mentioned. I thought I would have saved them in my memory. I didn't find Greene's book, but found many interesting links on the internet. I do remember that my local library has The Whole Shebang, Hyperspace, & Hawkins book, which I did check out. I'm going to be a reading fool. I wonder if it will have any effect on my poetry.

8:27 PM  
Blogger j.b said...

Luis,
even if it doesn't have any overt effect on your poetry, it will definitely affect it in one way or another.

broadening your scope of knowledge, regardless of how you go about doing it, will only make you a better person; and can only help you in your artistic pursuits! :)

happy reading, bro. let me know how you like 'em.

10:07 PM  

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