An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

A Certain Uncertainty

Posted by xbanguyen on February 15, 2010

So I thought I would cross the bridge to write a poem.  It was hard.  The unadorned volumes of e.e cummings, the gilded spines of W. H. Auden’s Collection, the frayed fabric of Rainer Maria Rilke’s works on my bookshelves stood patiently as if to reassure me but failed to impart any help. It was like gazing at the  glass cases in  a Parisian pâtisserie.  I can first admire then devour those delectable concoctions with aclarity and pleasure but can never make them, no matter how many Jacques Pepin’s cookbooks are strewn in my kitchen.  Truly the sensation I get when reading certain poems are physical.  I  remember writing to my English professor to explain that I could appreciate but could not create some years ago.  Alas, it is still true. I know full well that there are no equations that, when properly applied, would produce a poem.   Rhythms and meters are recourses but using them, or not, effectively requires something elusive.  I did try. My logical mind took over as soon as I put down one sentence and insisted that it had to be, well, logical. Unfortunately it was also stilted.  I had wanted to reach back to collect the shivers that ran through me as I read Emily Dickinson’s “A Certain Slant of Light” and saved it in another poem.  However, that desire itself is not born of logic so why apply logic to fulfill it?   For this reader, what makes poetry compelling is the perception of its uncertainty and the elements of surprises as the words turn.  Paradoxically, some poems  also offer the certainty of the beauty evoked by the images they convey. Consider the following lines.

I will arise and go now,
And go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there,
Of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there,
A hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade

W. B. Yeats

I can always count on the melancholy pleasure evokes by reading that poem even when I am uncertain why it is so.   At the same time, I can always count on the certainty that when a block of VHDL code simulates without errors and passes timing, its synthesized version will function correctly.  But is it truly a certainty? Perhaps not always. In fact, uncertainty is not only abound in poetry, but also in science and engineering.  The Heisenberg uncertainty principle states that at any point in time,  pairs of properties of a particle can not be known exactly – for example, the more precise its momentum is known, the more uncertain its position is.  In other words, “When you say that the electron acts as a wave, then the wave is the quantum mechanical wavefunction and it is therefore related to the probability of finding the electron at any point in space. A perfect sine wave for the electron wave spreads that probability throughout all of space, and the “position” of the electron is completely uncertain.”

I appreciate the irony of finding the word inescapable during this brief excursion into the realm of quantum physics.  There is an air of human resignation in this word that makes me feel a kinship to all engineers and poets.  The desire — more than that, the need to be certain must be the driving force in much of engineering work.  And yet, the measured acceptance of uncertainty is also a necessity. The duality of such realization accentuates my enjoyment of these stanzas from Mariane Moore’s Nevertheless.

The weak overcomes its
menace, the strong over-
comes itself. What is there

like fortitude! What sap
went through that little thread
to make the cherry red!

Acknowledgement: Information and waveforms describing the Heisenberg principle was from this site:  http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/Hbase/uncer.html#c2


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