1 November 2012

The fine art of hard science

Carol Lynne Knight explores the poetic nature of physics.


Our world is full of places where science and art converge: in photographs of the microscopic world and the cosmos, in pictures and graphics that depict complex abstractions from math and science, and in literature, too.

Carol Lynne KnightCarol Lynne Knight.

It’s in that last category that Carol Lynne Knight’s “Quantum Entanglement” (2010, Apalachee Press) belongs. Knight’s poetry “mingles scientific curiosity with stunning meditations on language and the myriad ways life unfolds,” said reviewer and award-winning poet Naomi Shihab Nye. “We are in the wonderful presence of a truly original voice.”

In addition to being a well-known Florida poet, Knight is a graphic artist, former art teacher and the co-director (with Florida A & M University English Professor Rick Campbell) of Anhinga Press, a 40-year-old literary publishing house based in Tallahassee. She’s also the winner of a Penumbra Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize nominee.

Q: What led you to get imaginatively involved with some of the theories in quantum physics?

Part of it came from reading (physicist) Brian Greene’s book “The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality.” I can’t say I understand most of the technical stuff in Greene’s book, but I did find it, overall, to be deeply fascinating.

The implications of multiple dimensions in the theoretical concept of string theory took me on a strange journey. The poem, “Variations on Dimension,” came from an emotional imagining of what other dimensions could house. For me, they held memory of how measurement marks our past, wild neurons, maybe heaven.

The idea of multiple dimensions also sent me on an Internet search. I found an article about the mathematician, Shing-Tung Yau, whose calculations on unseen dimensions seem to lend credence to string theory. And two years later, I am still musing over a quote from his interview about the math: “It’s exciting when you go deeper and deeper into a complicated structure that you can spend most of a lifetime working on. It was shocking when it showed up in physics, and it’s beautiful whether it’s true or not.” (From “The Math Behind the Physics Behind the Universe,” Discover, April 2010)

The relationship between truth and beauty is a great landscape for a poet to wander. Should I follow (Romantic poet) John Keats (1795 - 1821), or a contemporary mathematician into the quantum world?

Q: The book’s title poem “Quantum Entanglement,” begins with an epigraph from physicist Brian Greene’s book: “ … the quantum connection between two particles can persist even if they are on opposite sides of the universe. From the standpoint of their entanglement, notwithstanding the many trillions of miles of space between them, it’s as if they are right on top of each other.” What is it about this concept of quantum entanglement that caught your imagination?

I am in awe of this idea — that things on an unimaginably small scale are connected and can influence each other in such amazing ways. Quantum entanglement sounds like sorcery or magic. I was trying to parse what this phenomenon would mean to larger entities (like humans!). And this was before I had watched every episode of “Fringe.”

The poem ‘Quantum Entanglement’ starts out with a married couple, with a relationship. The woman in the poem is having a conversation — “If I tell you the world is flying apart, it could be true, / theoretically” — but then she goes on to say what she saw that morning: “ … the backyard green/ rises, surrounds me with tendrils of prayer,/ and the first woodpecker of spring drills/ into the pecan tree outside the window.” And what she sees makes sense to her in a sensual way. So the poem goes from the abstract to the physical. In part, it’s about that juxtaposition of what you can see or know, with what you cannot. It’s about that mystery, which pervades life.

Q: Can you talk a bit about your poem “Schrödinger’s Cat,” and what prompted you, a cat lover, to write it?

First, I must credit Diane Wakoski (a Fulbright fellow and writer in residence at Michigan State University) with the poem’s title. Although the poem is rife with references about probability, paradox, and observation, I didn’t know about Schrödinger’s Cat when I wrote it. The title change was in her notes on the manuscript when she wrote a blurb for the back cover.

The reality-based parts of the poem are the sock and cat with static electricity, a foggy night drive from Havana, and an unfounded fear of falling off the Thomasville Road flyover, which was under construction at the time. And earlier, I had been reading about chaos theory. The erratic nature of cats also influences the scenario. Yes, the cat lover in me did not let the cat die in this poem, although Schrödinger discussed the possible demise of the theoretical cat in his thought experiment.

The poem is a tumble through the fantastic and the unpredictable, or unmeasured, nature of our lives. And, even after all the crazy things described (almost ranted about), at the end, I act to make it all happen again, embrace all the possibilities: “I wake him up, / stroke his chin — waiting, / waiting for the spark.”

This story was originally published in Issue 9 of flux magazine, a discontinued publication of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.