The Rain Stick

By Sean Carroll | November 28, 2007 11:01 pm

By Seamus Heaney.

Up-end the rain stick and what happens next
Is a music that you never would have known
To listen for. In a cactus stalk

Downpour, sluice-rash, spillage and backwash
Come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
Being played by water, you shake it again lightly

And diminuendo runs through all its scales
Like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
a sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,

Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
Then glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Up-end the stick again. What happens next

Is undiminished for having happened once,
Twice, ten, a thousand time before.
Who care if all the music that transpires

Is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
Through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

For those wishing a more literal interpretation, here is what YouTube can teach you about the rain stick.

  • Sam Cox

    Fermi in Chicago has been doing work which indicates that at the quark level, at least some particles, perhaps the entire baryonic universe occillates between matter and antimatter at the rate of 2.8 trillion Earth cycles per second.

    Last year they published an article: “What happened to the antimatter” summarizing their work, which stongly implies that the entire material universe is subject to a proper time matter-antimatter pulse.

    I appreciated your post because it reminded me of the recent work at Fermi and other more theoretical treatments of cyclic universe models.

    Since only a 4D cross-section of the universe would be observed at a time, in extreme gravitational time dilation; while the matter universe was being observed, the anti-material universe would be invisible as Australia is invisible from North Amercia…and the “pulse” would be observed astronomically as a “Power Spectrum”.

    Recently, readouts of the matter-antimatter occillation have been published and while they resemble a sine wave, each side gives one the distinct impression of a sub-microscopic “power spectrum”.

    Assuming GR with its invariant frames is correct, the beans in the “rain stick” would do their music at an eternal location.

    Anyway, your “rain stick” is very interesting physics, and the principles by which it is played are very simple too…almost like “laws of nature”!

  • Neil B.

    Rainsticks make beautiful sounds. It’s very calming, like meditation, almost a mystical experience (and I’ve had the big kind occasionally) – I think certain sounds like that increase alpha in the brain.

  • MedallionOfFerret

    Lionel Trilling:

    “Understanding is an ambivalent, even a contradictory, thing: we may understand and not understand at the same time; it exists at such varying degrees of intensity that there is actually a difference in kind. The breach between those who have a lesser degree and those who have a higher is perhaps one of the tragic problems of the race. The religious leader, the political thinker, the teacher, the artist everlastingly communicate their vision–their high intensity of understanding–and they win assent, but always at a lower level and consequently, therefore, to a different thing than they intended. Their true vision, they know, the actuality of their passion, can never be truly reproduced; the result of their communication is inevitably a greater or less distortion.”

    So, with that in mind, how many Earth cycles per second are in “diminuendo runs through all its scales”?

    Please! no need to rattle your rain stick. I’ll accept an estimate.

  • Sam Cox

    You are quite an artist yourself! Your quote is excellent- and expresses a critical element of truth. I’ve faced the problem over the years in the classroom with my students…all teachers face the problem of: “Something lost in communication”.

    Not only do professionals of all kinds see the world differently and find that when they communicate, their meaning is distorted and diminshed; the intellectually challenged and mentally disturbed likewise usually find that their attempts to communicate are not understood. Cross cultural communication is very challenging, even between related cultures.

    I’m sure you are familiar with the work to which I refer. The article title, phrased as a question, (What Happened to the Antimatter?) implies that matter/antimatter occillations might be a general process- and explain “what happened to the antimatter”.

    I communicated the number given by Fermi earlier this year…no need to rattle my rainstick about that!

    Generalizing is related to concluding and concluding is an important part of the ongoing scientific process. Usually generalizations are flawed at best, even incorrect. This is an important reason we need to avoid being overly philosophical without qualifying.

    However, Einstein, Bohr and other scientists did and do generalize and extrapolate for very good reasons rooted in the scientific process.

    Once in a while we happen on a generalization which works- really works. I had that impressed on me the other day as we tested the autopilot of a newly aquired Citation ISP with a representative of the FAA up in the flight levels. We made a quick run from Philly to Youngstown and return, hooked up all the antennas to the windows and used General Relativity in the most practical way to determine our position to within Centimeters. Although we needed no such accuracy…a few meters was fine, I had it pointed out to me (and was duly impressed) that the 10 satellites we were locked onto were capable of locating the exact position of our detection equipment in the plane.

    We all continue to follow Fermi’s work. Older equipment is being dismantled, but larger equipment on the horizon will tell us more…much more.

    Best Wishes…

  • The AstroDyke

    Thanks, Sean! What a great way to begin the day, with ol’ Seamus.

    I’ve been visiting the Southwest this month, and yesterday woke up to the sound & smell of rain in the desert. So lovely.

  • Sam Cox

    “In diminuendo runs through all its scales”…

    Didn’t want to touch that with a ten foot pole! (but fun to ruminate on it anyway). First we need to confirm a general, synchronized, proper time M/A pulse at the quark level of scale, which of course affects all scales. Then, if the universe is eventually shown to be finite in mass, and maginally closed in spatial extent, we could begin to speak about the possibility of an eternal universe which might not be quite so eternal!…

  • spyder

    I was enormously blessed many, many years ago, to receive as a wedding present (future mrs X number four i believe) one of the grand-scale rain sticks. It is four inches in diameter, five feet long, and weighs a hefty eight or so pounds. Held at just the correct angle and slowly rotated, the lovely rain-like plinks and plunks last for nearly five minutes… I love it, and play it quite often just for the peace of mind and meditative state it can produce.

  • Sam Cox

    “the teacher, the artist everlastingly communicate their vision–their high intensity of understanding–and they win assent, but always at a lower level and consequently, therefore, to a different thing than they intended.”

    If I communicate as a parent, grandparent and teacher with intensity, and win assent at a lower level, I am happy to have accomplished more than nothing at all, but in a sense I have failed if some of my students…my four children, my 18 grandchildren and the thousands I have taught around the world, do not learn what they are taught- completely- and go on to far surpass me in their understanding of the universe… in their enjoyment of and success in life.

    Einstein reflected that he was not a man of any special talents, but he was very curious. I would guess his humility was the result of years of poor relations with the educational establishment of his day. We know that Einstein had very special talents and that when he taught, he encouraged curiosity and creativity in his students. I recall that one year his students came to him and said: Herr Einstein! All the questions on our examination are the same this year as last…to which he replied: “Ah, but the answers are all different”!

    One of my best teachers came to me 20 years after I graduated from HS and confessed that he was a terrible math teacher. Yet the man had inspired us with his curiosity and intellectual brilliance- and I told him so, too. He had been very successful.

    This business of generalizing is fraught with intellectual hazards…as I briefly dicussed already. However perhaps I should mention another important generalization, the persistant entropy problems of closed systems…which I alluded to higher up on this thread.

    A general relativity universe is everywhere…it is impossible to escape or be outside it. Because the GR universe contains everything, and escape is impossible, it may well be that it is the single exception to the entropy laws…entropy may be exchanged as thermal for informational…or informational complexity may increase over eternity in a phylogenic development of complexity at the expense of a slight overall increase in thermal entropy…yet, the system as a whole, while finite in mass and closed in spatial extent could conceivably completely conserve overall entropy…it might not tend toward disorder.

    This is especially so because of the necessary quantum connection between observation, which requires informational complexity and can be presumed to be gradually increasing in the cosmos, and the very existence of the universe itself.

    Sean is to be congratulated on this provocative blog…it is really excellent!

  • daisyrose

    “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is the countenance of all science” Wordsworth

    Nice post !


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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