An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Archive for the ‘Keats’ Category

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 »

Searching For Anodynes

Posted by xbanguyen on January 30, 2011

It’s not quite the cliff-diving sensation of writing a short story, but starting a new post is like setting out for a short walk and ending up in a different city with a collection of souvenirs displayed in ASCII, deceptively tentative. As you probably have observed, we seldom write in long hand as much anymore, not long letters, not sheaves of manuscripts stained with ink and hope. Instead, we use our laptops to register our thoughts that keep on meandering despite our left-brains’ effort to shepherd them toward a destination. These streams of thoughts are continuous, analog-like in nature. However, the incongruity of expressing them using digital technology is no longer jarring. With the advent in display technology and the familiarity of use, we no longer notice the demarcation.

Always wary of time, for me the efficiency of digital technology seems to be indisputable even in the realm of audio, never mind the condescension of some audio aficionados, because the materials used for analog recording will deteriorate with time more so than those ubiquitous CDs, and a sense of permanence is essential to this engineer. Listening to Ravel’s Bolero recorded on an audio CD confirms that those austere ones and zeros could intermingle to reproduce voluptuous sounds to be delivered to the pleasure center in our brains via the membrane that is our eardrum, an organ so delicate that when we listen to the softest of notes, it vibrates less than the diameter of a single molecule.[1] The demarcation between analog and digital blurs because those impulsive ones and zeroes have the same analog root — the sound waves coming from that saxophone are received as analog signals, filtered, sampled, quantized and encoded into digital packets. With the proliferation of wireless technology, there are many such packets zipping purposefully in our world to maintain the analog illusion of continuity. The pixels that are part of the same digital technology enables me to see Keats’s handwriting, as it was, and be drawn into his world all over again. The graceful curves of the words bring to mind Mary Oliver’s endearing habit of leaving pencils in trees so that she can capture her thoughts as they occur during her rambles in the forest surrounding Provincetown. Perhaps this poem came from the notes taken with one of those pencils.

Listen, whatever it is you try
to do with your life, nothing will ever dazzle you
like the dreams of your body,
its spirit
longing to fly while the dead-weight bones

toss their dark mane and hurry
back into the fields of glittering fire

where everything,
even the great whale,
throbs with song.

                                                              Mary Oliver

The poem exudes a sense of possibility, an optimism of what could be found when turning inward, an optimism that may be stoked to overcome the sense of impossibility that is indisputable due to the physical limitation, no matter how elegantly wrought. I’d like to imagine that such epiphany [2] occurred to the poet as she walked in the woods in early autumn when the trees were still richly clothed and the sun cast dappled shadows on her hat. That she noticed the grasshopper’s pale forearms, the soft eyelids of the little owl, the moths sleeping in the dark halls of honey inside the moccasin flowers, and the painted islands that were the summer lilies make the confinement of my cubicle a temporary burden.  And more than once I turn to the gentle understanding, almost a blessing of the following poem for comfort:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on

                                                                                   Mary Oliver

The last line makes the reassurance more real. Like the school girl I was long ago, I copied this stanza into my notebook just for the pleasure of doing so. But at times, the prospect of keeping desolation at bay seems daunting, in spite of the anodynes found in poetry.

Thank you for the inspiration, dear muse.


3) The waveform graphs and the ear diagram are from
4) Keats’s script is from
5) The grasshopper, the owl and the lilies references are from other poems of Mary Oliver.
6) The blue water lilies image is from a painting by Monet.

Posted in Analog, Digital, Keats, Physics, Visual | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Time Again

Posted by xbanguyen on November 23, 2010

I did not eat the grapes that night because they were conjured up by a defense mechanism to distract me from the pain after the fall.  Keats’s ode, purple-stained, and Andre Breton’s recurrent first time were adequate analgesic. Poetry came in handy then, as does the precarious stack of fiction hovering over the monitor at work when I need a diversion from the ordered world of digital design. I take an inordinate pleasure in piling more books onto that stack, haphazardly almost, so that it will topple one day, increasing entropy as stated in the second law of thermodynamics, and the chaos in my cubicle. Of course I can reverse this by righting the books to gain an illusion of orderliness, but it would never be the same stack of books it once was. As observed by Brian Greene the physicist, there is an incomprehensible number of possible ways for the pages to land when you throw an unbound volume, 697 pages, of War and Peace into the air.(1)   It has been theorized that the universe started out having very low entropy, and the increase in entropy is relentless ever since. The unidirectional property of entropy is bleak, because the past is  proven to be irretrievable.

Truly, though our element is time,           
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently, we could have kept it so.

Philip Larkin

The knowing resignation in the poem casts a gentle gloom on the reader, but the engineer in me dispassionately points out that the whole thing is theoretical and that there is an inconsistency in this unidirectional, irreversible nature of entropy in comparison with the symmetry described in classical physics, for example Newton’s third law, and both were formed to describe the same universe.  In fact, chemical physicists at the University of Australia have proved that in microscopic systems – latex beads of a few micrometers in diameter suspended in water, entropy decreases for a few tenths of a second (1).

So the deduction that bears out the arrow of time deflects on its own.  Nevertheless, the water in the experiment brings to mind Nick Caraway’s last reflection as he ended Jay Gatsby’s story, “So we beat on, boat against the current, born back ceaselessly into the past.” Even though I always enjoy rereading that sentence with my mind’s eye, tonight with the coming of the first snowstorm of the season, such melancholy needs to be counterbalanced by some optimism so I will skip the rest of autumn, an entire winter and go directly to spring

Nothing is so beautiful as spring –
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. — Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud …

Gerard Manley Hopkins

Thank you for the conversation, dear muse.




(2) The entropy graph is from
(3) The clock figure is from
(4) The green leaves photo is from


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Posted in Keats, Physics | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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