Guest Post: Michael Peskin on John Updike

By Sean Carroll | January 29, 2009 12:45 pm

Michael Peskin One of our guiding principles here at CV has always been that disciplinary barriers are meant to be leapt across. So, to mark the passing of an influential writer of fiction, who better than an influential writer of quantum field theory textbooks? We’re happy to have Michael Peskin contribute a guest post on the passing of John Updike.


John Updike (1932-2009)

John Updike, one of the great American writers, died on Tuesday. The Cosmic Variance bloggers might seem to write incessantly, but they had nothing on him. Updike produced 26 novels, 9 poetry collections, and, it seemed, a short story in the New Yorker every other week. There was no aspect of culture that he did not know. Yesterday, I saw him celebrated on the sports page of the San Francisco Chronicle for his classic on Ted Williams’ last at bat, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”. We scientists should also acknowledge our gratitude and send our friends out to read his work.

Every particle physicist knows Updike’s poem “Cosmic Gall,” the number one popularization of neutrinos:

At night, they enter at Nepal
and pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed …

Readers of Cosmic Variance will find much more interesting his 1986 novel Roger’s Version. In Chapter One, the scruffy fundamentalist computer science graduate student Dale Kohler walks into the office of the comfortably middle-aged Harvard professor of divinity Roger Lambert and shatters his worldview by explaining that new discoveries in physics and cosmology require intelligent design. The characters in the story that follows personify all points of view in the science versus religion debate, until — but I shouldn’t ruin the surprise.

John Updike People who are serious about literature claim that these works have merely intellectual interest. If you are in that group, there are also Updike novels that will move you with the depth of his empathy. His masterwork is the set of four Rabbit Angstrom novels, a thousand pages in all, one novel every ten years from 1960 to 1990. The greatest moments of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom’s life came in high school, when he was a star basketball player in his small town in upstate Pennsylvania. When the first novel opens, that part of his life is already over. He has an uninspiring job, a tiny apartment, and a baby who dies in the first few pages. Harry has no introspection. The glow that surrounded him on the basketball court brings him women, and, one after another, they push him into all varieties of trouble. Harry’s wife Janice is tougher and recognizes that the two are stronger together than apart, but she cannot control his whims. In Rabbit, Run, he wanders in and out of his new marriage and an affair with a girl from the town. In Rabbit, Redux, he takes in a runaway teen and her drug habit. In Rabbit is Rich, he inherits his father-in-law’s Toyota dealership and samples the country-club life. In Rabbit at Rest, he tries to retire to Florida, but the bad choices of the past three books — and one astonishing new one — follow him. Harry also seduces his readers. We stay one step ahead of him in anticipating the next catastrophe, but we also watch through his eyes the panorama of America in Updike’s era.

If this is too heavy to carry, you could pick up the short, early novel The Centaur. A father, a high school science teacher, sacrifices himself for his son. It is a brief story, told with great pathos. But also, magically, just under the surface, the story unfolds as a Greek myth, and, in the end, the father, Updike’s father, ascends to the heavens.

It may not be true for those who blog, but those who put pen to paper will always be with us. Enjoy!

John Updike Image (c) Michael Mundy

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Guest Post, Humanity, Words
  • Mark

    Nicely put Michael – Updike was a true modern master,. He was an author that I always felt was able to achieve compellingly readable prose which stayed with you for a long time afterwards. Not an easy feat.

  • jfromm

    The autobiography of great writers is often as interesting as their works, for example “The Other Side of Me” by Sidney Sheldon. In his fascinating book “Self-Consciousness”, Updike describes his struggles with stuttering and psoriasis and talks about his profound commitment to writing. By the way, to produce a short story in the New Yorker every week is similar to write a cantata every week – in this way Updike can be compared with J.S. Bach.

  • Marshall Eubanks

    I have never heard of Updike’s poem about neutrinos – but I do remember the song by Klaatu, Little Neutrino. There was a time when I would put that when contemplating the solar neutrino discrepancy.

  • JoAnne

    Nice post, Michael, thanks! I had forgotten about his piece on Ted Williams’ last at bat. That was indeed a classic.

  • Sili

    I went to Amazon to look up the QFT book (in the naïve hope that I might one day understand some physics – not likely since I’ve have great trouble reading my differential geometry book despite passing the exam in it … years ago) – and I ended up adding ten books to my wishlist.

    Perhaps it’s fitting if I add one by Updike too, now that I’ve read the post.

  • Pingback: Talk Like A Physicist » Blog Archive » John Updike’s poem on Neutrinos - Cosmic Gall()

  • changcho

    Very nice, brief overview of some of Updike’s works, thank you.

  • Pingback: Updike’s The dance of the solids « Entertaining Research()

  • gss_000

    It’s always sad when someone this prolific passes. Maybe not as notable for the space community, but just as cool, one of Updike’s last pieces was on Mars in an issue of National Geographic.

  • regan842967

    Um, that description of Rabbit, Run is incorrect. The baby dies at the *end* of the book, not in the first few pages, and it is a pretty big spoiler as well.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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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