By Muriel Rukeyser.
Whether it is a speaker, taut on a platform,
who battles a crowd with the hammers of his words,
whether it is the crash of lips on lips
after absence and wanting : we must close
the circuits of ideas, now generate,
that leap in the body’s action or the mind’s repose.
Over us is a striking on the walls of the sky,
here are the dynamos, steel-black, harboring flame,
here is the man night-walking who derives
tomorrow’s manifestoes from this midnight’s meeting ;
here we require the proof in solidarity,
iron on iron, body on body, and the large single beating.
And behind us in time are the men who second us
as we continue. And near us is our love :
no forced contempt, no refusal in dogma, the close
of the circuit in a fierce dazzle of purity.
And over us is night a field of pansies unfolding,
charging with heat its softness in a symbol
to weld and prepare for action our minds’ intensity.
So I was poking around Amazon.com looking at biographies of some of the founding names of thermodynamics and kinetic theory — Boltzmann of course was an interesting character, but there are a lot of good stories out there. The American physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs obviously was a major player — among other things, he introduced the concept of the statistical ensemble, the primary tool by which we nowadays think of thermodynamic systems.
One of the notable biographies of Gibbs, it turns out, is by none other than Muriel Rukeyser. That’s a name that should be familiar to long-time blog readers, as she was the author of the delightful poem The Conjugation of the Paramecium. Any poet who spends her free time writing biographies of the titans of statistical mechanics is my kind of poet.
Turns out that Rukeyser led a pretty interesting life in her own right. She was a political activist, drawing on her own experiences as a feminist Jewish bisexual, but agitating for social justice in a number of different areas. She wrote for the Daily Worker, covered the Scottsboro case, and investigated an outbreak of silicosis among miners in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. You can have a look at her FBI file, if you have a morbid fascination concerning what the government might do with information about what friends you have and what organizations you belong to.
Happily, these days we have restored the balance of civil liberties, and the government would never spy on anyone except terrorists, leaving the rest of us free to write poetry and follow the evolution of distribution functions on phase space unperturbed by political considerations.