An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Archive for the ‘Ammon’ 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 »

%d bloggers like this: