The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘science’

On “Relativity”

October 8, 2015 | by

The poetry of astrophysics.

A 2008 image of Omega Centauri from the Hubble telescope, revealing that the cluster “appears to harbor an elusive intermediate-mass black hole in its center.”

It’s not a new idea that poets and scientists should talk to one another. During a visit to Florence in 1638, the young John Milton sought out Galileo Galilei. By then a blind old man, Galileo was living under house arrest, confined by the Inquisition for asserting, after his celestial observations, that the Earth revolved around the sun. Years later, old and blind himself, Milton would pay homage—in his epic poem about the origins of our universe, Paradise Lost—to the great astronomer, who makes a cameo appearance with his telescope pointed at the sun’s dark spots.

Five years ago I got my first job, as a research fellow at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge; in the stray hours between thinking about Milton or Donne, I finished my first book of poems. In college, a wooden ramp across the four-hundred-year-old stone steps is the only outward sign of its most famous fellow. Fifty years ago, Stephen Hawking arrived fresh from his Ph.D. (as I did) to take up a research fellowship at Caius, then never left. Within that community, where I would sit down to lunch with friends in maths, genetics, or cognitive science, traces of those conversations began to creep into my notebooks and even into poems. When I got the commission to write a poem on light for this year’s National Poetry Day—today, in the UK—my first thought was paradoxically of its absence: the black holes whose mysteries Professor Hawking has spent his career working to unfold. Read More »

The Machinery of the Universe

July 1, 2015 | by

Poe’s vision of the cosmos and the art it inspired.


Alfred Jensen, Physical Optics, 1975, oil on canvas, 7'2" x 12'9". Image via Pace Gallery

Since adolescence, Edgar Allan Poe had been picking fights with science. His second collection of poetry, published when he was all of twenty, opened with a mischievous sonnet needling what he called that “true daughter of Old Time”:

Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?

By the time Poe wrote Eureka: A Prose Poem, the last major work he published before his premature death in 1849, his attitude toward certain men of science had softened. He eagerly absorbed—and sometimes rejected—theoretical works by the brilliant astronomer Sir John Herschel, the popular scientist J. P. Nichol, and the towering, eccentric naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to whom Eureka was dedicated. He was still capable, on the other hand, of caustic put-downs such as the one he attributes early in the book to a scientist from the distant future. It’s in that figure’s prophetic voice that Poe chews out most of his contemporaries for “their pompous and infatuate proscription of all other roads to Truth than the two narrow and crooked paths—the one of creeping and the other of crawling—to which, in their infinite perversity, they have dared to confine the Soul—the Soul which loves nothing so well as to soar in those regions of illimitable intuition which are utterly incognizant of path.” Read More »


March 16, 2015 | by


From Photographs of British Algae

Some claim that Anna Atkins—born on this day in 1799, in Kent—was the first woman to take a photograph. Others that hers were the first photos ever printed in book form.

Atkins was a botanist, an artist, and an accomplished nature photographer. Her father was a scientist, and he encouraged his daughter’s early interest in botany. Both her father and her eventual husband, John Pelly Atkins, were friendly with the pioneering photographer and inventor William Henry Fox Talbot; it was probably Talbot who introduced her to the techniques she would come to use in her art.

In her books on British algae and her later work on plants and ferns, Atkins worked by contact-printing cyanotype photograms, and by “photogenic drawing,” the process by which light-sensitive paper is exposed to the sun. Read More »

A Parish for Slang Bedouins, and Other News

November 4, 2014 | by

John Frederick Lewis, A Bedouin, ca. 1841.

  • Edgar Allan Poe filed for bankruptcy in 1842. Here’s a long list of his debts, with creditors listed in Philadelphia, Richmond, and New York, and orderly columns of numbers that grow large enough to give you a sympathetic panic attack.
  • “If ambitious writers work at the boundaries of the written language (as they should), then they ought do it from a path of mastery, not ignorance; broken rules carry no power if writers and readers don’t notice the transgressions. Proper usage shows us where the earth is, so that, when the time comes, we know what it means to fly.”
  • Not unrelatedly: “Dickens published an essay on slang, probably by George Augustus Sala. The 1853 article expressed the view that either slang should be ‘banished, prohibited’ or that there should be a New Dictionary that would ‘give a local habitation and a name to all the little by-blows of language skulking and rambling about our speech, like the ragged little Bedouins about our shameless streets, and give them a settlement and a parish.’ ”
  • In which Ann Patchett reminds readers of the New York Times that she’s not married to her dog.
  • “I found it odd that there had never been a scientist as a Man Booker judge. There have been many non-literary types amongst the judges: a former spy, a former dancer, a Downton Abbey actor—but science, apparently, was a step too far. Until this year, when I joined the judging panel.”


Blinded by Coffee

September 29, 2014 | by

scan 5

Two ordinary humans soon to have their vision sucked out of them by coffee, villainous coffee.

Sadie Stein wrote earlier today about Balzac, who was famously enamored of coffee—especially coffee on an empty stomach—as a creative agent, so much so that it probably killed him. On the other end of the spectrum is J. M. Holaday, a—scholar? an armchair scientist? he’s a man about whom Google reveals little—whose sole publication, an essay called “Coffee-Drinking and Blindness,” survives him. The piece appeared in the North American Review in September 1888. Rhetorically marvelous if scientifically unsound, it argues emphatically that drinking too much coffee will make you go blind. And this was not, to Holaday’s mind, mere conjecture. He begins his essay with bold certitude:

I am satisfied that defective vision and blindness will pretty soon be a prominent characteristic among the American people … I make this assertion without having seen any statistics whatever on the subject of blindness. I found out long ago that a cup of coffee leaves a night-shade on the brain which continues longer than an eclipse of the sun. For some time past I have been consulting with different persons in Council Bluffs, who are suffering with failing sight, and in each instance I ascertained that the unfortunate person was and is a regular coffee-drinker.

Indubitable evidence! Correlation does imply causation! Lest you fear that Holaday is a plant—a tea lobbyist, maybe, or a cola manufacturer—he’s quick to note that he was once fond of coffee himself, though he “now feel[s] free of the coffee-drinking vice, and will have no more trouble with it unless I shall again fall a victim to some church supper or to the magnetic blandishments of some buoyant hostess.” Read More »


The Ultimate Example of Everything, and Other News

August 27, 2014 | by


John Ashbery at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2010. Photo: David Shankbone

  • Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, on the New Museum’s current show, “Here and Elsewhere”: “So many of today’s iconic images are made in the Middle East … For visual artists working from the region, this surfeit of spectacles poses a challenge. When everyday life—at least as it is experienced via a computer screen—regularly throws up these images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
  • Ben Lerner at the Met: “What interests me about fiction … is in part, its flickering edge between realism and where a tear in the fabric of a story lets in some other sort of light.”
  • Things that—according to the students and faculty of the first Ashbery Home School, a new writing conference in Hudson, New York—John Ashbery is “the ultimate example of”: “surrealism, realism, hyperrealism, distance, proximity, translation, tradition, the grotesque, the beautiful, the blind, the all-seeing, the old, the young, the queer, the hetero, the hedgehog, the fox, the human, the alien, the bric-a-brac in the cupboard, the masterpiece on the wall, painting, cinema, architecture, life.” (NB the author of this list describes it as “incomplete and incompetent.”)
  • A brief history of the problem of sorting, classifying, and otherwise categorizing things: “It is tempting to think making categories is a straightforward scientific enterprise, and that debates will be clearly settled once we’ve amassed enough data. But the history of science shows this not to be the case … The nature of scientific categories is not merely an empirical issue; it’s also a philosophical one, and one affected by self-interest and social forces.”
  • Today, in posthumous gifts: more than three thousand of Doris Lessing’s books are to be donated to a public library in Zimbabwe, where she lived for twenty-five years.