An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Archive for March, 2010

Of Grecian Origin

Posted by xbanguyen on March 21, 2010

Do you care to know that in scientific context, the Grecian letter alpha α denotes many things? It is a particle in quantum physics, the linear thermal expansion coefficient, the ratio of collector current to emitter current in a bipolar transistor.  Strolling down the alphabet, beta β denotes the ratio of velocity to the speed of light. Epsilon ε is the earth’s axial tilt. Eta η describes the absolute vertical vorticity. Kappa represents  dielectric constants. Lambda λ denotes wavelength. Nu is the kinematic viscosity. Tau τ is a protein. And omega ω represents the first infinite ordinal.

Behind these imprints of this ancient culture are the scientists themselves. Democritus of Abdera, he who inferred the existence of atoms and how their movements explain that things change but “not being” can never change into “being” had discerning eyes. Aristarchus of Samos’s calculation revealed the immensity of the universe. Eratosthenes of Cyrene accurately calculated the circumference of the earth by measuring the shadow of the sun. Besides his famous buoyancy principle, Archimedes of Syracuse also proposed the numbering system based on the myriad myriad (100,000,000) to count the number of grains of sand needed to fill the universe. I am bemused by such juxtaposition that brought back the afternoon when I was twelve and became light-headed contemplating the question of what could be when nothing existed, not time, not the sun, not the air around me, and least of all myself. Many years later, Stephen Dedalus’s inscription on the fly-leaf of his geography book brought back that unsettling sensation again.  As you know, Stephen’s namesake is also of Grecian myth, he whose son fell to earth flying too close to the sun.  Re-reading The Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, I can’t help but feel as if I were intruding  into Joyce’s conversation with himself, all of the literary devices not withstanding.  The fact that he chose to have Stephen compose a villanelle is fitting considering the apparent confinement imposed by the form that provides a challenge to the artist.

Are you not weary of ardent ways,
lure of the fallen seraphim?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Your eyes have set man’s heart ablaze
And you have had your will of him.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

Above the flame the smoke of praise
Goes up from ocean rim to rim.
Tell no more of enchanted days.

Our broken cries and mournful lays
Rise in one eucharistic hymn.
Are you not weary of ardent ways?

While sacrificing hands upraise
The chalice flowing to the brim,
Tell no more of enchanted days.

And still you hold our longing gaze
With languorous look and lavish limb!
Are you not weary of ardent ways?
Tell no more of enchanted days.

James Joyce

The lyricism of the poem can be distracting  just as the bipolar pull of sexual ardor and religious enchantment was distracting to Stephen until the turning point in the story when he wrote this poem to embrace art. It is ironic that said lyricism offers such vicarious pleasure to his readers.  But again one must take pleasures as one finds them … Thank you,  dear muse.

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