Metaphor to Action

By Sean Carroll | March 27, 2008 10:58 am

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 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.

Muriel Rukeyser 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.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Human Rights, Words
  • Pingback: How Muriel Rukeyser became my favourite poet this morning! « Entertaining Research()

  • John Merryman

    Political wholism/socialism is ok, but physics wholism is too unscientific and non particle based?

  • Ali

    Sounds like an interesting writer, I’ll have to look into her work. I particularly like her quote: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

  • jeff

    “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

    The mind is made of physical things, but every physical thing is also an image or a “story” in the mind. So which is more fundamental? Hard to say. A chicken and egg problem. Realism vs Idealism. But so far, the physical-as-fundamental has been more useful.

    Just append everything you write (no matter how seditious) with “in God we trust”, then the FBI will overlook you.

  • William L. Rukeyser


    You might also like her biography of a much earlier scientist (Elizabethan era): Thomas Hariot, arguably the earliest English speaking scientist in the New World. (The Traces of Thomas Hariot, 1971)

  • Sean

    William, thanks, that’s a good suggestion. I have the Gibbs biography on order, so I’m looking forward to reading that.

  • joseph duemer

    I saw Muriel Rukeyser read her poems at the University of Washington many years ago, shortly before her death. She had suffered a stroke and walked with a pronounced limp as she came to the podium, but her voice was remarkable — light but strong. It was an astonishing, strong performance of her work. A remarkable poet.

  • Brendon Brewer

    Wow, that’s really interesting. I’d just like to point out that kinetic theory and statistical mechanics are quite different theories, and Gibbs is more associated with the latter.

  • Albatross

    Ouch! I’ve never seen someone suffer a hyperextended sarcasm before, but the dismount in that last paragraph looked painful! You need to ice that down?

  • Lab Lemming

    Does this biography of Josiah “Big Willy” Gibbs adequately describe his important contributions to the theoretical framework that underpins the thermodynamics of hot chicks?

  • Costanza

    J.W. Gibbs was more important than you might think. Until Gibbs, the Powers That Be in science (European physicists and chemists. mostly) didn’t take American scientists and their endeavors seriously. Gibbs “put us on the map”, so to speak.

  • Lewis

    “Willard Gibbs” by Muriel Rukeyser is a strange book. For one thing, she spends thirty pages on the Amistad slave mutiny just because Gibbs’s father, a linguist and biblical scholar, played an incidental role in finding black sailors who could translate the slaves language into English for the trial.

    It’s also quite strange to read a science biography by a woman who is deeply, deeply influenced by the early 20th-century poet and novelist Thomas Wolfe. Some of her writing is almost a parody of Wolfe. Here’s a single paragraph about Gibbs from page 91:

    “Lost days. The river he knew, the faces he first saw against the sky, the pier he sat on and watched break the circles and waves of the Sound, the leaf he picked up and broke brittle yellow in his hand, the little sisters whom he loved. And the autumn-colored books, the scrawls of childhood, the cliffs he grew to know: red precipice of East Rock, West Rock which ends in a basalt cliff of columns. Lost. To see it as it once was seen by him; to know that it was these colors and qualities into whose nature he first inquired; and to know that they are lost. When did he realize the snow and ice, and their fine kinship with the rain that fell over the streets of snow? When did the stars spell a meaning to him? And the steam of the harbor ships, the screaming train? The words his father spoke, of words and meaning? And the simple, irreversible soup, that can never again be what went into it – the water, colored forever by one drop of ink that winds in the clear air-bright bowl and is lost to the eye, but hangs forever there? The numbers written on slate in the schoolroom? The story of his father learning to talk to the African captives because he could count up to ten in their tongue? Lost, with the lost days, and the little boy lost.”


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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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