An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

Posted by xbanguyen on July 9, 2017

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Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

Posted by xbanguyen on December 4, 2016

Should an engineer attempt to prove the assertion that beauty is truth, truth beauty? I say yes even after realizing that the term negative capability also comes from the same source, the poet John…

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Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

Posted by xbanguyen on November 27, 2016

Should an engineer attempt to prove the assertion that beauty is truth, truth beauty? I say yes even after realizing that the term negative capability also comes from the same source, the poet John…

Source: Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

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Of Beauty and Truth, Denied

Posted by xbanguyen on November 27, 2016


Should an engineer attempt to prove the assertion that beauty is truth, truth beauty? I say yes even after realizing that the term negative capability also comes from the same source, the poet John Keats, and to possess negative capability is to be able to contemplate the world without the desire to reconcile the contradictions it contains.  Given that to be dispassionate is to have no desire at that moment, to see an engineering problem clearly it helps to be dispassieulerequationonate while examining the problem from different angles. Any contradictions observed are to be noted because they may contribute to the solution.

The subjective nature of beauty may be bounded if we postulate that elegance is beauty.  Among the sciences, theoretical physics stands out in its use of elegance as a criteria when evaluating a physical theory.  In this application, elegance is defined as “the principle that postulates the adequate representation of a physical problem in mathematical formulae that bestow unity, symmetry and harmony among the elements of the problem.”  The Euler equation that encapsulates the pure nature of the sphere comes to mind, as doespecialrelativityequations Eisntein’s special relativity equation that shows how time dilates.

The purpose of science is to build true knowledge of the cosmos.  If elegance is synonymous with beauty in this discourse, and if elegance is a criteria to weigh the validity of scientific theories then yes beauty is truth. As I attempt to prove that the converse is true, I struggle still with the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. I have not been able to come to terms with the evidence that truth can be ugly, and worst of all, truth did not matter to many of my species who processed the same stimuli using similar faculties.  We all heard and saw the same events. There was only one frame of reference. There is only one truth.  Furthermore, there are no other words in this bountiful language of ours that are synonymous with truth because it is unique.  So why did many people pay no heed to truth? Every action will reap a reaction. In this case, the equal and opposite part of Newton’s third law is not adequate because the magnitude of the consequence of not paying heed to truth is far worse. Our collective past is now marred with an ugly enormity that will have a profound downward influence on our future. Unlike the expanding universe, our earth is finite.  For the good of our species, we must recover from this lapse of judgment. We also must transcend narrow nationalism so that our species will survive.

While we find our ways, and we will, to move forward,  solace can be found when turning to poetry, at times.


Not unlike Keats’s urn, the vase on my desk, empty now from the roses of summer, remains stoic as it is meant to be and I must find that stoicity comforting. Or I could turn to Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill to find beauty in his remembered childhood even as he was chained by time. In the presence of such beauty, I must believe in truth, in the many kindred spirits who share the same vision and prevail by steadfastly refusing to normalize untruth.


Thank you for the prescient observation, dear muse.



  1. The weeping Statue of Liberty image is from
  2. The Grecian urn image is from
  3. The beautiful equation images are from
  4. The definition of elegance as quoted is from “Simplicity And Elegance in Theoretical Physics” by John D. Tsilikis

Posted in Keats, Math, Physics, Time, truth | 1 Comment »

Surprising The Senses

Posted by xbanguyen on July 10, 2016

If you were able to touch the wings of a dragonfly in flight one summer afternoon, would you be able to replicate the sensation of flying? Icarus not withstanding, intentionally directional weightl…

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Surprising The Senses

Posted by xbanguyen on July 10, 2016

dragonfly1If you were able to touch the wings of a dragonfly in flight one summer afternoon, would you be able to replicate the sensation of flying? Icarus not withstanding, intentionally directional weightlessness would be a welcome addition to our other senses.  Am I terribly greedy? Is it not enough already to be able to hear the seagulls, to see, feel, smell and taste the first berries of summer? Is having each of the five senses heightened sufficient, or is it a blessing to have them metamorphosed when the senses invoked by one stimulus is unexpected, such as experiencing a sharp crunchiness when seeing the letter A or, perhaps more commonly, seeing a particular color where hearing a musical scale. Rhapsody in blue could literally be blue, in the realm of synesthesia.

Removing religion from the word blessing, it is more satisfying to argue that a synesthete is blessed because biologically, synesthesia is conjectured to be the results from an excess of neural connections between associated sensory modalities, and having an abundance of neural connections increases the complexity in the permutation of sensory perception Grapheme_color_synesthetesupon receiving a particular stimulus, enriching the experience of living.  I like to think that a grapheme-color synesthete sees rainbows when others see strings of numbers. So by not such a long leap, an engineer can also see poetry in logic equations. After all, Omar Khayyam, he who wrote these immortal lines Rubaiyat



also wrote Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra in which he provided a geometric method for solving cubic equations by intersecting a hyperbola with a circle. The Rubáiyát, gilded and bound in leather, was among the high school graduation presents I received many years ago. The melancholy pleasure afforded when I read those lines for the first time still resonates; the neurons that make up this experience feel immortal and ephemeral at the same time.


It was still early summer in Seattle. A walk with the sea on one side and lush gardens full of delphiniums on the other side heightened all senses just like this poem does.


Tangles of seaweed enhanced the fecund smell of the sea. The receding tide was to reach -2.5 soon.   Following her mama, a  baby eagle took wings, screeching excitedly. For a moment, the gratitude of being was almost overwhelming, making superfluous the knowledge that  synesthesia can be selectively augmented with cathodal stimulation of the primary visual cortex.

Thank you for the topic, dear Muse.



  1. Many thanks to the poet Jay Wright for writing Light’s Interrupted Amplitude.
  2. All scientific information on synesthesia is from
  3. The dragonfly photo is from
  4. A brief biography of Omar Kayyam is from
  5. The image of Omar Kayyam is from
  6. The mathematical manuscript image is from



Posted in Biology, brain, Jay Wright, neurons, synesthesia, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

The Poetry Of Memory

Posted by xbanguyen on November 29, 2015

DreamCarLast night I saw my father smiling broadly behind the wheel of a shiny Vetta. The chrome trims, the cream leather,  accents the color of ocean made my admiration for the automobile felt normal, Vetta a normally coveted make of cars believable the way memory recalled in dreams reinvented itself effortlessly, imposing itself nonchalantly. Where those fragments of memory go when the dreams recede I do not know. I only know that bits of that dream hung on as I woke. The familiar sense of loss returned, but this time a little less pronounced because I was busy reaching toward the source of those fragments, the hippocampus of dreams where my father still writes poetry.

Is it the hippocampus of dreams that I should seek? To answer the question I would need to know whether my quest is for a long term explicitlimbic or implicit memory.  The biology students among us already know that explicit memory involves conscious awareness, recording facts, events,  objects, people and places via the hippocampus and adjacent cortex, whereas implicit memory is acquired unconsciously to store perceptual and motor skills, requiring not the hippocampus but the cerebellum, the striatum, and the amygdala.   Do you find it difficult to reconcile the association of those tangible biological parts to such gossamer things like memory?  It has been shown experimentally that the human brain contains about 86 billions neurons.  A single neuron can have up to a thousand synapses, the units of information storage for short-term memory. The engineer in me dispassionately appraised the experiment’s method of counting neurons whereas that other part of me recited from memory the poems I read to my father, over and over again because his short term memory was not what it had been.

neuronAs far back as I could remember, my father wrote poetry.  He wrote each of us a poem to celebrate our births. He wrote about ordinary happenings such as the time when he showed his little sister the newly hatched chicks, about his empathy for the Quynh flowers that bloomed at midnight with no one watching, about running out of tea when a friend visited.  Later,  I think he found poetry cathartic as he tried to work out the helplessness he felt after finding refuge in another country, as evident in this poem.


moonThe moon was a recurrent image in his poetry. Even toward the end when his memory had all but gone, he smiled when I read one of his favorite stanzas of “Chinh Phu Ngam” to him, the one where the drumbeats on the long rampart shook the moon.  By then he had stopped writing, and suddenly his numerous poems were no longer enough, sad poems, happy poems, and the poems he wrote for my mother, the love of his life for sixty years. She went first and I could not bear it when he asked after her, her for whom he wrote this poem:


I got up early and went to work in the garden this morning. The blue sky, clear and crisp, made it impossible to brood. The autumn joy sedium, confined to a container, had withered. But at its base I spied some new green. I lifted it up gently and placed it securely under a piece of earth across from the heritage rose. It will bloom again next year.  I thought about the many roses in my father’s garden. I still don’t know if there is an afterlife, but I am thankful that my father’s love of gardening and, especially, his love of poetry live on in me.


Thank you for helping me heal, dear Muse.



  1. The limpic drawing is from
  2. The moon drawing is from
  3. The sedium photograph is from
  4. Most of the brain and memory information is from
  5. The number of neurons is from
  6. The turquoise car photo is from,

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A Simulated Sky

Posted by xbanguyen on August 10, 2014

A Simulated Sky.

Posted in Aerogel, chemistry, summer | Leave a Comment »

A Simulated Sky

Posted by xbanguyen on August 10, 2014

summerSkyEarly summer morning stops being a cliché when you catch a glimpse of that peculiarly blue sky standing by the kitchen window at five nursing a hangover from reading past two. It has been some years but that blue sky is still dependable, the anticipation of traveling, airborn, to somewhere can still be conjured up. If you need to simulate that blue sky, would silica gel work? AerogelChemistryAfter all, silica gel is 98% air, and holding it in your hand has been compared to holding a piece of sky. Now you must agree that there is an extreme beauty in that simile, and it has been said that in every extreme beauty there is an extraordinary disproportionality. Accepting that premise, you would not be surprised to find out that aerogels are known for their extremely low densities  which range from 0.0011 to ~0.5 g cm-3. The production of silica gels involves the reaction of a silicon alkoxide with water in a solvent such as ethanol or acetone in the presence of basic, acidic, and/or fluoride-containing catalyst. In this technique, a silicon alkoxide serves as the source for the silica, water acts as a reactant to help join the alkoxide molecAerogelules together, and a catalyst helps the underlying chemical reactions go fast enough to be useful; silicon alkoxides are usually non-polar liquids, however, they are not miscible with water. To compensate, a solvent such as ethanol or acetone, which is miscible with both silicon alkoxides and water, is added in order to get everything into the same phase so the necessary chemical reactions can occur. That word “miscible” is entreating, but let’s just be content with noting it for now. What comes out takes on an ethereal beauty. See for yourself. The ephemeral nature of the summer sky notwithstanding, I am still bound by this surly bond of earth and sometimes must make do with the beauty of wood. It is no great hardship, however, as evident in this poem


The poem accentuates the sensation of permanence as it quietly sings the stoicity and enduring nature of wood. To be reminded that books being rustling wood moves me – the murmur of the pages has always been a favorite sound. The usefulness of books because they are pliable when held in my hands becomes evident  after reading under the sun and I need to shade my eyes for a quick nap; the e-reader just does not provide the same tactile experience. It is so easy to let go with the scent of paper so close, the sand beneath, the instant darkness allowing stardust to shimmer under my eyelids at midday as I fell asleep mulling over  NASA’s congruous use  of aerogels to catch particles from passing comets.


Thank you, dear muse for the paradox of being present in your absence.



1) The aerogel photo and chemical composition are from

2) The “surly bond of earth” is from the poem High Flight”  byJohn Gillespie McGee Jr.

Posted in Aerogel, chemistry, John Richardson, summer | Leave a Comment »

A Transformed Isolation

Posted by xbanguyen on January 27, 2014

Nothing is the word that renovates the world.”  The sentence fairly leaped off the page, seizing my shoulder, sitting me down to start this post. Reading a couple of lines further that “No is the wildest word we consign to language” flashed an insight so briefly, leaving in its wake an afterglow barely visible but definitely not a mirage. That’s reading Emily Dickinson in Seatttle this winter evening. EmilyD Much has been said about her poetry, her life and that sense of mystery, but you will see that it got closer to home. As an awkward high school sophomore lurking about the halls of Lincoln High, before empowering became a cliche in the corporate world, I was empowered by her permission to select a society of one, dignified by a virtual stone door. Many years later, I sometimes wonder about her reasons for choosing to live isolated from the outside world. Inspite of her isolation, she transformed the world of many readers, this one especially, across space and time — the effect of her poetry is not unlike that of an isolation transformer. Lest you think that this notion is far-fetched, consider that the ioslation transformer transfers power in the form of AC current from the source via the primary winding to the load at the secondary winding, the primary and secondary not connected by conduction but by induction. In safety application, this isolation protects the users of the device connected to the secondary winding while transfering power to the device. Isolation transformerLikewise, her poetry provides power to assuage my needs for beauty while protecing me from her piercing gaze into human frailties, most– if not all — of which I am a bearer.

The effort to understand her influence even after all these years reduces me to a mass of uncertainty. Is it her wry humor seeing that bird coming down the walk, the reckless abandonment in the wild night that invokes such shudderingly delicious delight, WildNight the condescension proferring to death, or that formal feeling comes after great pain? Is there an alchemy that eludes me?  Or all it takes is to pay close attention to the words, as Fasrnoosh Fathi wisely pointed out?


It was not a book, but a bundle of letters  and rumination in my imagination, with bunches of lavender strewn about. I remember the warmth of the satisfaction reading about the letters edged with gold stripes found by Jen and Margueritte as they cleared up the attic of their great aunt to prepare for Margueritte’s wedding chamber in “As the Earth Turned”, me whose feet barely found balance landing in Portland after the fall of Saigon. This is not meant to be autobiographical so I will stop while I still can, echoes from my mother’s reading of Alphonse Daudet still resonate and for that I am thankful.


Thank you for the many pleasures, dear muse.


1) The protrait of Emily Dickinson is from

2) The fragments of her poems are from

3) The transformer diagram is from

4) The fireside reader painting is from

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