An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

Archive for the ‘Physics’ 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 »

A Transformed Isolation

Posted by xbanguyen on January 27, 2014

Nothing is the word that renovates the world.”  The sentence fairly leaped off the page, seizing my shoulder, sitting me down to start this post. Reading a couple of lines further that “No is the wildest word we consign to language” flashed an insight so briefly, leaving in its wake an afterglow barely visible but definitely not a mirage. That’s reading Emily Dickinson in Seatttle this winter evening. EmilyD Much has been said about her poetry, her life and that sense of mystery, but you will see that it got closer to home. As an awkward high school sophomore lurking about the halls of Lincoln High, before empowering became a cliche in the corporate world, I was empowered by her permission to select a society of one, dignified by a virtual stone door. Many years later, I sometimes wonder about her reasons for choosing to live isolated from the outside world. Inspite of her isolation, she transformed the world of many readers, this one especially, across space and time — the effect of her poetry is not unlike that of an isolation transformer. Lest you think that this notion is far-fetched, consider that the ioslation transformer transfers power in the form of AC current from the source via the primary winding to the load at the secondary winding, the primary and secondary not connected by conduction but by induction. In safety application, this isolation protects the users of the device connected to the secondary winding while transfering power to the device. Isolation transformerLikewise, her poetry provides power to assuage my needs for beauty while protecing me from her piercing gaze into human frailties, most– if not all — of which I am a bearer.

The effort to understand her influence even after all these years reduces me to a mass of uncertainty. Is it her wry humor seeing that bird coming down the walk, the reckless abandonment in the wild night that invokes such shudderingly delicious delight, WildNight the condescension proferring to death, or that formal feeling comes after great pain? Is there an alchemy that eludes me?  Or all it takes is to pay close attention to the words, as Fasrnoosh Fathi wisely pointed out?


It was not a book, but a bundle of letters  and rumination in my imagination, with bunches of lavender strewn about. I remember the warmth of the satisfaction reading about the letters edged with gold stripes found by Jen and Margueritte as they cleared up the attic of their great aunt to prepare for Margueritte’s wedding chamber in “As the Earth Turned”, me whose feet barely found balance landing in Portland after the fall of Saigon. This is not meant to be autobiographical so I will stop while I still can, echoes from my mother’s reading of Alphonse Daudet still resonate and for that I am thankful.


Thank you for the many pleasures, dear muse.


1) The protrait of Emily Dickinson is from

2) The fragments of her poems are from

3) The transformer diagram is from

4) The fireside reader painting is from

Posted in Emily Dickinson, Physics | Leave a Comment »

In the Presence of Light

Posted by xbanguyen on April 28, 2013

What part of speech is your most favorite word? Is it something you reveal to amost anybody who cares to ask, or only to a selected few, or would you reveal nothing even to the most intimate, hugging the word all the while? Let’s say that your favorite word is an adverb that brings to mind the sea, as in


What does that reveal about you?

The coming of May brings to mind the fragility of the himalayan poppy. The blue of this flower holds hints of promise from the bluepoppysummer sky to come.  The almost translucent petals have a daintiness that belies the rocky terrain of their native land. They look ethereal, perhaps because their color is not an intrinsic property of theirs.


Rather they give off light that enters the eye,  striking photo receptors, the rods and the cones, on the retina. As you know, light is a form of electromagnetic energy, comprising of photons  characterized by wave-particle duality.  The photo receptors in the retina convert photons into eletro-chemical signals that are then processed by ganglion cells, a type of neurons, then sent to the brain [1] to be perceived as blue, azure, cerulean, but perhaps not indigo, sapphire nor cobalt.  What about the colors we see in dreams? What about remembered colors? How can my memory still recall with minute details the green of the leaves one summer I spent in Minneapolis and the coral of my dress bathed in light one morning as I found that my ASIC worked first time? Perhaps memory delineated with colors lasts longer, but whether it can be done intentionally I do not know. I do know that I am drawn to this poem, almost helplessly, inspite of the bright blue outside my window this morning.


The emphatic  negations pulsing with resigned affirmation pull me inward with a longing to arrive at the source of this turbulence. The different shades of blue appear to blend into a blackness, paradoxically because black is the absence of light. The despair imparted by the poem lies heavily but not unpleasantly on my mind. Then logic prevails. There must be some light to perceive colors.  The short-lived plants of years past notwithstanding, I will again try to coax the meconopsis betonicifolia to grow far from home.

Happy birthday, dear muse.



[2] The poppy photo is from
[3] The retina diagram is from
[4] The electromagnetic spectrum is from


Posted in Biology, Colors, Gardening, Lynn Powell, Physics | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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 »

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 »

Fall Flying

Posted by xbanguyen on October 9, 2010

Absorbed in the integration of a new FPGA, I was unaware of autumn until I heard the beating wings of a flock of starlings flying  south past my window.  It was a sound both gentle and astonishing at the same time  because the whispering air holding the tiny bodies in flight was also capable of supporting a plane laden with cargo, mostly humans and their encumbrance. Even though the physics of flying is well understood, the words used in describing this accomplishment are no less satisfying on their own, especially the alliteration: vertical velocity, parasitic power, varying  wind vortex,  and the visceral viscosity of air.   Also satisfying is the paradoxical thought that we can fly because nature strives to be in equilibrium, to be still, as Newton’s third law is integral in lift generation.   The reciprocating nature of action and reaction brings to mind the piezoelectric transducers that can both transmit and receive sounds. As you know, a transducer is a device that converts small amounts of energy from one form to another.  Left alone, a piezoelectric crystal is still even though its atomic structure is not symmetrically arranged — their electrical charge is in perfect balance. Piezo means press in Greek.  When an electrical charge is applied onto this structure, the atoms within the crystal move to rebalance themselves electrically, causing the crystal to deform, generating mechanical vibration that could be in the form of sound. Conversely, when a mechanical force in the form of sound, for instance, is pressed into this crystal structure, the atoms are pushed closer or pulled farther apart, developing the polarization that creates electric current from the sound received.

So you see that one form of energy flows into another – Things are amorphous in many ways.  There are no boundaries that can’t be transcended. Looking at it another way as John Donne did a few centuries ago, no man is an island.  How then, are we, limited by nature, have enough empathy for all things big and small?  I mused over this question reading the following lines

The Seasons Have Unwound

and will not circle back again.
You pad like a cat through the changing
woods, trying to save what’s left before winter
swallows the red leaf, the yellow, the last
finger of the creek that passed
through August. It’s the question
you’ve answered and never answered:
What would you save from a burning house?

Once I hoped I’d save only
myself, naked and untraceable.
I wanted to stand in the mob of the curious
gathered at the curb and watch
the uniforms of recognition kindle and smoke,

to be absolved of owning.
The present is burning.
I know myself only
by what I’ve discarded, a vagrant’s
inventory of ashes.

Wendy Battin

I’ve found such pleasure reading the poem, especially the last sentence this rainy October evening. Having lived a number of years and not being able to discard things physical as well as emotional,  I imagine that the bonfire that would result  if I were a considerate pyromaniac could be spectacular, the heat radiating would be audible. But I feel blessed to have other obsessions, just as incendiary but far less destructive, to refrain, the desire for the illumination within not withstanding.

Happy autumn, dear muse.

1)  The airplane over the vortex photograph is from
2) The piezoelectric diagram is from
3) The autumn fire painting is the work of Scott Bennet displayed at

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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:

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