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Physics EnvyAmerican Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After$
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Peter Middleton

Print publication date: 2015

Print ISBN-13: 9780226290003

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2016

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226290140.001.0001

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What the Physicist said to the Poet

What the Physicist said to the Poet

How Physicists Used the Ideal of Poetry to Talk about Uncertainty

(p.51) 2 What the Physicist said to the Poet
Physics Envy

Peter Middleton

University of Chicago Press

The chapter shows how postwar poets encountered strong negative or idealized images of poetry in the writings of physicists and other scientists. Physicists sometimes referred to an abstraction of poetry in order to negotiate tricky questions about how to communicate the strangeness and “semi-phenomenological” character of the quantum world. Murray Gell-Mann coins the term “quark” partly because the allusion to Joyce enables him to finesse the questionable actuality of these sub-atomic particles. The chapter discusses the surprising prevalence of articles about poetry in general science journals aimed at professional scientists, and looks in detail at one article on contemporary poetry and science. Many poets read and referred to popular writings by Erwin Schröger and Werner Heisenberg. The chapter explains how their books appealed to poets because they referenced poetry, and talked about its possible future roles in relation to physics. Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan both found uses for the ideas of these physicists in their essays and poems. The chapter concludes with a discussion of how late in his career Oppenheimer reversed his earlier endorsement of Paul Dirac’s dismissal of poetry, by arguing that good scientific communication to the public would have the quality of lyric.

Keywords:   physicists, semi-phenomenological, quark, science journals, Erwin Schröger, Werner Heisenberg, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, J. Robert Oppenheimer

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