Tag clouds have been all the rage on the Internet recently. This is the first really good use of them I’ve ever seen: a chronological, visual comparison of words used in presidential speeches over the past 230 years. Lots of interesting little tidbits:
– Hated bogeymen appearing suddenly (Spain, 1818-1823, 1897-1899; France, 1834-6; rebellion, 1861-1865; etc)
– New inventions (submarines, 1915; internet, 1997)
– Words presidents don’t say in public anymore (polygamy, 1880; breasts, 1776; inducement, 1817; plenipotentiary, 1818; florins, 1791; burthens, 1801)
– Old-timey name shortenings (Benja, Geo)
– John Adams, strange-word rock star (elysium, arcadia, matrosses, aristocratical, fieldpieces)
Albert Einstein has served as a muse for writers, musicians, film-makers, sculptors and scientists.* He has also inspired poets such as Miroslav Holub and David Clewell, whose poem, “Albert Einstein Held Me in His Arms,” first appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of The Georgia Review. It is bloggily reprinted here with kind permission from the poet, although, as Clewell tells Discover, “I actually work on a typewriter, with real striking keys and honest, off-the-roller paper!”
Albert Einstein Held Me in His Arms
By David Clewell
although my parents didn’t know it at the time.
And if I knew anything, even on some vaguely molecular level,
I surely wasn’t talking. No one was the wiser, except
for Einstein, of course, taken with my small charms.
He was crazy about how I couldn’t stop smiling,
drooling in my carriage on a Sunday afternoon in Princeton—
the town my mother loved just driving to and getting out and
losing herself in, absolutely smitten. And my pedestrian father
was crazy about my mother, so even if that meant
another goddamn trip to Highfalutinsville, New Jersey,
he’d be there without fail, forever along for the ride.
The way I finally heard it, Einstein was on his knees
in a sweatshirt, rumpled chinos, and sneakers, pulling weeds—
Merely being himself, my father would say later, utterly impressed.
Einstein had that down to a science at 112 Mercer, the unassuming
white frame house where he cultivated flowers, where he played violin
precisely in sync with his favorite recordings late into the night.
Where he famously met with Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, and
for philosophic forays into the schnapps, then inevitably higher mathematics.
But on that one historic Sunday in the spring of my first year,
Einstein himself welcomed the unrenowned likes of my mother and father.
This twentieth-century giant picked me up with some easy peekaboo
in the last of the afternoon’s fading light until, eventually, genius
or no genius, I couldn’t take it anymore, and I made a tiny grab
for his wildly theoretical hair. And that was pretty much the end
of our ad hoc civilization that flourished for ten Princeton minutes.
When Einstein died only six weeks later,
every newspaper ran his picture, and all at once my father
couldn’t believe it: Wasn’t that the gardener who couldn’t get enough
of the baby? It says right here he’s Einstein,
the guy who revolutionized our thinking about time and space!
And what was that supposed to mean to him, exactly? My father
wasn’t Einstein, but he’d thought about them plenty, too,
deciding in his lifetime he wasn’t about to get enough of either one.
For years my parents never said a word about that day, as if
to remember it out loud would have been somehow unseemly—
a kind of bragging they never much went in for—rather than a celebration
of wonderful dumb-luck Sunday driving, like every happy accident
in the history of science or in those classic, unlikely stories
we can’t help going back to for their mythic staying power. So now let me
put it this way: Albert Einstein held me in his arms before he died.
Sooner or later we’re all trying to explain our particle selves
in light of our own cockeyed theories of relativity.
Someone in my family—my mother or my father, maybe me—
had to embellish at least some of the truth that comes, finally,
here at the end:
my mother’s horrified
that I’ve yanked poor Einstein’s hair, and she resigns herself,
sighing, It’s time to go. To prove there are no hard feelings,
he says something Einsteinian, like Yes, but what is time?—
which my father misunderstands as a question he can actually answer
at that very minute, so he says, 5:00. And before I know it,
because I am far too young to realize much of anything,
everyone’s in a sudden hurry back into their uncertain futures,
as if this whole thing never quite honestly happened, and in no time
it’s fifty years later, and I’m the one still alive, all that’s left
of the story, telling myself: Yes, it did. No, it didn’t. No, it did.
Note: David Clewell teaches writing and literature at Webster University in St. Louis and is the author of six collections of poems, most recently The Low End of Higher Things (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003). The 2001 American poet laureate Billy Collins writes of Clewell that he “is an exuberant, inexhaustible poet and an insider on such diverse American arcana as forgotten Hollywood actors, flying saucers, CIA shenanigans, comic books, cereal favors, beatnik kitsch, and jazz. His unstoppable narrative energy and his multi-layered curiosity are almost enough to drive this poet out to the far right side of the page.”
*For a semi-complete round-up of books, plays, songs, movies and exhibits about Albert Einstein, take a look at the reviews section of Discover’s September 2004 special Einstein issue.
Interesting story from Fortune about Diebold, the company that makes a lot of touch-screen voting machines and has been attacked recently for rigging elections, or messing up elections unintentionally, or both (witness the earlier post about how to rig elections). Diebold did seem to be rather dodgy from the snippets that made it to the front of the newspaper, but one about which most people know pretty little. Seems to me that Fortune does gloss too quickly over the company’s errors, but the real take-home message I see is just a reminder of how fantastically stupid some bureaucratic/corporate decisions are.
One thought that just hit me: The process of improving voting machines (spurred on by the federal largesse of the Help America Vote Act of 2002) seems so far to be a botch job, but maybe in a couple years we’ll look back and say that this dumb approach actually got the job done in a fairly reasonable time. Sure, it’s not as fast as you could imagine it happening if it were run by an omniscient, benevolent dictator, but in case you haven’t noticed, they’re in short supply at the federal government.
If you were planning to attend the Hubble space telescope’s fiery funeral in 2010, you might want to put away that sexy black dress. NASA announced today that they’re launching a crew of seven astronauts by May of 2008 to replace Hubble’s old gyros and worn-out batteries, then boost it out of a dangerously low orbit. But they’re not just fixing humanity’s best eye to the cosmos—going up with the crew will be some brand-new toys for astronomers to play with.
When astronauts dock for the fifth time with Hubble, they’ll upgrade the telescope’s imaging power with the Wide Field Camera 3. NASA is working improved digital camera technology into the device for larger, clearer images that astronomers can study and you can use as computer desktop backgrounds (joy).
Another Hubble addition will be the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, a device that can see ultraviolet light invisible to the human eye. Aside from taking the most detailed snapshots of quasars and intergalactic dust, it will help astronomers find young, hot stars (and definitely not the Hollywood type). The repairs and upgrades should keep Hubble trucking well into 2013, until it burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere and is replaced by the James Webb space telescope.