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  • Sherin Thomas

Relativity for Stephen Hawking

Written for Ours, Scientifica for the NUS Science Journalism Club

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?

Sarah Howe’s Loop of Jade was shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. She is a Fellow at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute.

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.

Science relies on metaphor—traditionally the poet’s tool—to describe and communicate itself. This was a recurring theme of my chats with scientific colleagues, who in their teaching come up with analogies to explain complex ideas for their students or phenomena taking place at a level we can’t see. They were conscious, too, of how these metaphors can mislead, making the known and the unknown seem more alike than they really are. I wanted to explore that tension in “Relativity,” whose title points to Einstein’s celebrated theory of 1915, a hundred years old this year. For me, relativity also suggests the relationship between two things in a comparison—the ligature of the word like, which chimes through my poem—whose interplay enables us to think.

That the imaginative terrain of poets and physicists might overlap is nowhere clearer than in the thought experiments Einstein devised. Experiments that take place only in the mind, they make use of vivid props drawn from everyday life—trains, clocks, elevators—to lead us through the realms of the previously unthinkable. In one, Einstein imagined chasing a beam of light, a flight of imagination that led eventually to special relativity. Still another of his relativity thought experiments involves a moving train and two observers (one onboard, the other on the platform) who see the same flash of light. Einstein combined these ingredients into a paradox only solvable by realizing that time actually moves more slowly for the person on the speeding train. My poem’s two-line stanzas are the train tracks of Einstein’s imagined scene: parallel lines that will impossibly meet in the black-hole singularity his theories predict, where time stops and space ceases to make sense. As objects we can only ever observe indirectly, black holes are a powerful symbol of what we don’t understand about the universe—terrifying and thrilling.

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 this 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. The first part of “Relativity” recounts the physical experiment that demonstrates that light leads a double life. A light beam is shone through parallel slits: the photons behave like particles when observed passing through the aperture, but by the time they hit the screen opposite they’re acting as waves, interfering to create a striped pattern of dark and bright bands—just like the stanzas of my poem. The so-called wave-particle duality is the notion that quantum objects behave like waves until you try to locate them, when that behavior disappears. Physicists now believe that it and Heisenberg’s famous uncertainty principle are just two manifestations of the same underlying phenomenon.

There are, of course, many poets more recent than Milton who have turned to science for inspiration: Lavinia Greenlaw, Gwyneth Lewis, Jorie Graham, J. H. Prynne, to name just a few. While writing “Relativity,” I found myself haunted by a line—“Our eyes adjust to the dark”—in a poem by Tracy K. Smith from her extraordinary, Pulitzer Prize–winning third collection, Life on Mars. Smith’s father was one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. In “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” she imagines Hubble’s “oracle-eye” illuminating “the edge of all there is.” Might not our eyes adjust to the dark? Smith’s phrase echoes at the end of my poem, where it resurfaced as a question, a hypothetical—deferred, yet hopeful. After all, both Galileo and Milton in their blindness came to rely on other sorts of eyes.


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