An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Archive for the ‘Edward Hirsh’ Category

Romancing the Light

Posted by xbanguyen on September 24, 2011

Would you rather know that there is less than one ounce of astatine in the earth crust at anytime, and that the speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second, or would you rather know that the chemist Archie Randolph Ammon wrote poetry, as did James Clerk Maxwell the physicist?[1] In this late summer evening I would rather watch the gradual departure of daylight softens

the demarcation between the mountains and sky beyond. Of course the lingering light does not go from the Olympic Peninsula to my retina instantaneously. Many years ago, Galileo attempted to measure the speed of light using two lanterns on a windy night atop those Florentine hills – I imagine the windy bit as you already guessed. Even though the experiment failed to yield a measurement, some years later it spurred the Danish astronomer Ole Roemer to note the time it took for the moon Io to revolve around Jupiter to come up with a measurement for the speed of light that was not too far off.[2] Preoccupied  with nostalgia, tonight I have succumbed again to the longing for permanence and felt comforted in knowing that there is such a cosmic limit as the speed of light that is constant for all frames of reference.  That equation E= mc2/sqrt(1-v2/c2) describing the energy of a particle with rest mass m moving with speed v can be used to show that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light because  infinite energy would be needed to accelerate v to approach c.[3] This limit makes it impossible for us to travel back into the past nor to see into the future.  Would you want to see the future, or just be content observing the light of September and be reconciled to the changing of seasons?

Paradoxically, the broken shadows illuminate for me the beauty of having four seasons, made possible only because of time. The lyrical uncertainty that light is neither before or after reminds me of  the dual nature of light as particles and waves. Akin to D.H. Lawrence’s torch of blue gentians, the cheerful yellow mullein can also be torch-like.  Phonetically, the mullein brought to mind the mullioned windows of a certain cathedral in Emily Dickinson’s mind when she felt the weight of that slanted light. The weight she felt is not only metaphorical but also physical because its particulate nature enables scientists to hold light captive in chambers containing a specific mixture of gas. The captured light can be released by flashing a second light through the gas.[4] I wonder if the newly freed light, when departing from the holding chamber, left something like regrets in its wake.

Thank you for the book filled with light, dear muse






[5] The Gaileo’s lantern picture is from

[6] Jupiter and its moons picture is from

[8] A swatch of the universe photo is from


Posted in Ammon, Galileo, Merwin, Physics, Time, Visual | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

In Praise of Sleep

Posted by xbanguyen on July 21, 2011

Falling asleep under the sun is not an overrated experience as you’d think even if you don’t live in Seattle.  Receding, the minutiae in the dreams you had under the sun’s influence  left a peculiar disorientation as you surfaced out of the heat back to everyday life.  Admittedly, it is not the same as being alive twice. For that, you will have to come back from inhabiting certain images, like Van Gogh’s field of poppies, in  a not-quite-still life fanned by the quivering wind, the red flowers indelible once imprinted by the cones of your retina.  Burns’s love, Kayyam’s rose and the dress Kim Addonizio desired are red too.  Would I be able to create the experience of seeing those shades of red if I have the exact size of their wavelengths, knowing that red has the longest, 780-620 nanometers? To be exact is necessary in engineering. In recreating the field of red flowers as they move gently in the wind in high resolution, the clock of the video circuitry that sends the images to the monitor needs to be at a definite range of frequency. Predictability and precision are virtues in engineering whereas the usefulness of poetry is inexact. Far from repelling, this tension can be inordinately attractive when I work to remove the last pico second in a setup path to close timing in an FPGA. It is a relief to be able to let go of certainty to return later. The sleepwalkers are always able to return.

So by sleeping they can literally “walk through the skin of another life” and return with their hearts intact even after that feat of flying, figuratively though it may be. Such adventures they had in the dark!  No poetic license was taken to recreate that well-being feeling upon awaken after such deep sleep.  The price of consuming darkness in exchange for that is paltry, especially as that other life comes with it. The resonance in the last line of the poem makes me feel grateful because of the self-sufficiency it induces. All is within our reach. Surely there are mornings when you start anew, brimming with energy so much that if you walk faster it will spill over. Never mind that this well will be depleted, for some by day’s end, for others sooner because  some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal (1) . There is always tomorrow.  Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. Time to stop before the ricochet starts.

Thank you for the seeds, dear muse.


1) Albert Camus

2) The painting of the sun landscape is from

3) The Van Gogh’s Field of Poppies image is from

4) The color spectrum is from

Posted in Colors, Digital, Edward Hirsh, Kim Addonizio, Sleep, Van Gogh, Visual | 2 Comments »

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