Paul Dirac and poetry

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite!

      – Paul Dirac

Paul Dirac

I tacked Dirac’s quote onto the bulletin board above my desk, the summer before senior year of high school. I’d picked quotes by T.S. Elliot and Einstein, Catullus and Hatshepsut.* In a closet, I’d found amber-, peach-, and scarlet-colored paper. I’d printed the quotes and arranged them, starting senior year with inspiration that looked like a sunrise.

Not that I knew who Paul Dirac was. Nor did I evaluate his opinion. But I’d enrolled in Advanced Placement Physics C and taken the helm of my school’s literary magazine. The confluence of two passions of mine—science and literature—in Dirac’s quote tickled me.

A fiery lecturer began to alleviate my ignorance in college. Dirac, I learned, had co-invented quantum theory. The “Dee-rac Equa-shun,” my lecturer trilled in her Italian accent, describes relativistic quantum systems—tiny particles associated with high speeds. I developed a taste for spin, a quantum phenomenon encoded in Dirac’s equation. Spin serves quantum-information scientists as two-by-fours serve carpenters: Experimentalists have tried to build quantum computers from particles that have spins. Theorists keep the idea of electron spins in a mental car trunk, to tote out when illustrating abstract ideas with examples.

The next year, I learned that Dirac had predicted the existence of antimatter. Three years later, I learned to represent antimatter mathematically. I memorized the Dirac Equation, forgot it, and re-learned it.

One summer in grad school, visiting my parents, I glanced at my bulletin board.

The sun rises beyond a window across the room from the board. Had the light faded the papers’ colors? If so, I couldn’t tell.

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in the case of poetry, it’s the exact opposite!

Do poets try to obscure ideas everyone understands? Some poets express ideas that people intuit but feel unable, lack the attention, or don’t realize one should, articulate. Reading and hearing poetry helps me grasp the ideas. Some poets express ideas in forms that others haven’t imagined.

Did Dirac not represent physics in a form that others hadn’t imagined?

Dirac Eqn

The Dirac Equation

Would you have imagined that form? I didn’t imagine it until learning it. Do scientists not express ideas—about gravity, time, energy, and matter—that people feel unable, lack the attention, or don’t realize we should, articulate?

The U.S. and Canada have designated April as National Poetry Month. A hub for cousins of poets, Quantum Frontiers salutes. Carry a poem in your pocket this month. Or carry a copy of the Dirac Equation. Or tack either on a bulletin board; I doubt whether their colors will fade.

*“Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.” I expect to build no such monuments. But here’s to trying.

This entry was posted in Reflections by Nicole Yunger Halpern. Bookmark the permalink.

About Nicole Yunger Halpern

I’m a theoretical physicist at the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science in Maryland. My research group re-envisions 19th-century thermodynamics for the 21st century, using the mathematical toolkit of quantum information theory. We then apply quantum thermodynamics as a lens through which to view the rest of science. I call this research “quantum steampunk,” after the steampunk genre of art and literature that juxtaposes Victorian settings (à la thermodynamics) with futuristic technologies (à la quantum information). For more information, check out my upcoming book Quantum Steampunk: The Physics of Yesterday’s Tomorrow. I earned my PhD at Caltech under John Preskill’s auspices; one of my life goals is to be the subject of one of his famous (if not Pullitzer-worthy) poems. Follow me on Twitter @nicoleyh11.

18 thoughts on “Paul Dirac and poetry

  1. Past All Reckoning
    a wave coming in,
    the sun on my back,
    seagulls crying,
    susan laughing,
    our castle in the sand,
    o brief life, how long?
    waves and sun and sand.
    jon awbrey, 17 feb 2006
  2. The editor of the arts section of my student newspaper did ask me, as a physics/mathematics major, to put in some physics problem that he could run as a piece of art. I ended up using something from a physics exam — re-deriving the Kepler equations for a different central force law — that I thought had that nice blend of being interesting mathematically and being interesting to look at, when all those long strands of equations were written out. He seemed happy with it. I’m not sure what it did to advance the appreciation of science as an art, though, or vice-versa.

  3. Pingback: Paul Dirac and poetry | Φυσ&i...

  4. According to an in-depth account by his brother Nicholas, John von Neumann’s favorite verses included the concluding stanzas of Goethe’s Faust, which in Bayard Taylor’s translation are:

    Chorus Mysticus

    All things transitory
    But as symbols are sent

    Earth’s insufficiency
    Here grows to Event:

    The Indescribable,
    Here it is done:

    The Woman-Soul leadeth us
    Upward and on!

    Note  The concluding line’s original German “Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan” is more literally translated “The eternal feminine draws us onward.”

    According to Nicholas von Neumann:

    There are many interpretations of these eight lines which, however, are not the subject matter of this book. What is relevant for our subject matter is our speculations, right or wrong, of the meaning of these lines within the greater context of Goethe’s philosophy, i.e., there is a unifying force behind all manifestations of nature, which we cannot comprehend, but we can try to explain it with means at our disposal.

    It was in this spirit that John tried to comprehend the mysteries of atomic and subatomic particles through quantum mechanics, the mysteries of weather conditions and forecasting through hydrodynamics and statistics, the mysteries of the central nervous system through logic and architecture of artificial computers, the mysteries of genetics and inheritance through his theory of self-reproducing automata, etc.

    … [These matters] were discussed frequently in the context of father’s and John’s concepts of the professionals’ responsibilities to society.

    Conclusion  Historians nowadays speak of “works being read as providing a usable past” [Shantz:2014], and Nicholas von Neumann’s biography provides fertile grounds for this crucial task, in which all members of the STEAM community — students especially — creatively participate (either explicitly or implicitly).

    @book{cite-key, Author = {Nicholas
    A. Vonneuman}, Publisher = {Nicholas
    A. von Neuman (self-published)},
    Title = {John von Neumann as seen by
    his brother}, Note = {initial draft
    of a biography}, Year = {1987}}
    @incollection{Shantz:2014, Author =
    {Douglas H. Shantz}, Booktitle =
    {Religious minorities and cultural
    diversity in the {D}utch
    {R}epublic}, Editor = {Hollander,
    August den, and Visser, Piet}, Pages
    = {208--221}, Publisher = {Brill},
    Title = {Religion and {S}pinoza in
    {J}onathan {I}srael's interpretation
    of the Enlightenment}, Year =

    • Here are a few more notes regarding the burgeoning literature of ‘usable pasts’

      Van Wyck Brooks (1918) on the notion of a ‘usable past’:  “Discover, invent a usable past we certainly can, and that is what a vital criticism always does. [\dots] The past is an inexhaustible storehouse of apt attitudes and adaptible ideals; it opens of itself at the touch of desire; it yields up, now this treasure, now that, to anyoneone who comes to it armed with a capacity for personal choices.

      If, then, we cannot use the past our professors offer us, is there any reason why we should not create others of our own?

      Colin McLarty (1999) on the notion of a ‘usable past’:  “An important mathematical concept will rarely arise from generalizing one earlier concept. More often it will arise from attempts to unify, explain, or deal with a mass of earlier concepts and problems. It becomes important because it makes things easier, so that an accurate historical treatment would begin at the hardest point.

      I will sketch a more accurate history of categories and toposes and show some ways the common-sense history obscures their content and especially obscures categorical foundations for mathematics. Yet I doubt the more accurate history will help beginners learn category theory.

      I conclude with a more broadly falsified history that could help introduce the subject.”

      Best wishes are extended to all readers of Quantum Frontiers, for enjoyable construction of a usable past, a hopeful present, and an enterprising future for the quantum STEAM community!

      Author = {Van Wyck Brooks}, Journal = {Dial},
      Month = {11 April}, Pages = {337-41}, Title =
      {On Creating a Usable Past}, Year = {1918}}
      @article{cite-key, Author = {Colin
      McLarty}, Journal = {British Journal of the
      Philosophy of Science}, Pages = {351-375}, Title
      = {The uses and abuses of the history of topos
      theory}, Volume = {41}, Year = {1990}}

  5. Wallace Stevens,

    “The Snow Man”

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter
    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,
    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place
    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

  6. Julian Schwinger was either unaware or not a fan of this (smart and stimulating) P.A.M. Dirac’s quote, which -in fact- is a repetition of the uncle Plato’s condemnation of arts, an extremely controversial, “obsolete” (but a little-bit stimulating, original and … “fruitful”) idea!…

    Excuse again please my poor English (and my feeling of uncertainty and discomfort when I adress to this very audience together with writers that I respect very much) and even excuse (… again!…) my idea to ascribe to Dirac some admiration to (for) Plato’s concepts, which is -or could be- rather a joke. For sure Julian S. Schwinger was fan of Poetry as the last paragraphs of his 1965 Nobel Lecture prove for good; hence I’ll give you the whole poem of a poet whom I like (love!) very much, together with his poetry and who’s I did the … acquaintance via Schwinger’s Lecture!

    On first looking into Chapman’s Homer

    Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
    And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
    Round many western islands have I been,
    Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
    Oft of one wide expanse had I been told,
    That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
    Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
    Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
    Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
    When a new planet swims into his ken;
    Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
    He star’d at the Pacific -and all his men
    Look’d at each other with a wild surmise-
    Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

    Lovely imho!! Well, John Keats was really a fine artist “of the words” and a deepest thinker also! Thus I decided a few years ago to give this Keat’s 1816 poem to my pupils to translate together with the “introduction” (in fact the ten first pages) of the fundamental 1824 Sadi Carnot’s Paper.

    I also wonder what the really greatest and profound thinker and creator P.A.M. Dirac would say about this very poem … though I believe that he wouldn’t change the skeleton of his ideas…

    So, I’ll give you – hopefully soon and for reasons of completeness!- the formal translation of a relevant poem of another great poet…

  7. Need for completeness and need to understand…


    So although we approve of many things in Homer, this we will not approve of … nor we will approve of Aeschylus when he makes Thetis say that Apollo sang at her wedding in celebration of her child:
    “that he would not know sickness, would live long,
    and that every blessing would be his;
    and he sang such praises that he rejoiced my heart.
    And I had hopes that the divine lips of Apollo,
    fluent with the art of prophesy, would not prove false.
    But he who proclaimed these things…
    … he it is
    who killed my son…”
    Plato, Republic; II. 383

    When Thetis and Peleus got married
    Apollo stood up at the sumptuous wedding feast
    and blessed the bridal pair
    for the son who would come from their union.
    “Sickness will never visit him,” he said,
    “and his life will be a long one.”
    This pleased Thetis immensely:
    the words of Apollo, expert in prophesies,
    seemed a guarantee of security for her child.
    And when Achilles grew up
    and all Thessaly said how beautiful he was,
    Thetis remembered the god’s words.
    But one day some elders came in with the news
    that Achilles had been killed at Troy.
    Thetis tore her purple robes,
    pulled off rings, bracelets,
    flung them to the ground.
    And in her grief, remembering that wedding scene,
    she asked what the wise Apollo was up to,
    where was this poet who spouts
    so eloquently at banquets, where was this prophet,
    when they killed her son in his prime?
    And the elders answered that Apollo himself
    had gone down to Troy
    and with the Trojans had kiled her son.

    Constantine P. Cavafy, 1904.

    Needless to say that I do consider this very poem, together with John Keat’s aforementioned poem AND many other poems at least of equal importance to P.A.M. Dirac’s work…

    P.S. I guess that it’s not odd that today I felt not discomfort in writing that about poetry and such; the very last time, in writing some smallest observation about Physics, I was in a state of profound ambivalence … or some-such!…

  8. Please allow me to commend also to poetry-minded Quantum Frontiers readers two recent — very recent! — books that (superficially) have little to do with science and nothing to do with poetry: Michael Harris’ Mathematics Without Apologies: Portrait of a Problematic Vocation (2015) and Eleanor Lerman’s Radiomen (2015).

    On the other hand, these two books — one by a celebrated mathematician and the other by a celebrated poet — have everything to do with what we hope to learn from science and from poetry. As Eleanor Lerman puts it in her earlier (well-regarded) book of science-centric poetry, The Mystery of Meteors (2001):

    The Mystery of Meteors

    Two days in a row I have not seen the meteors
    though the radio news says they are overhead
    Leonid’s brimstones are barred by clouds;
    I cannot read the signs in heaven,
    I cannot see night rendered into fire
    And yet I do believe a net of glitter is above me


    In the second part of my life, slowly, slowly,
    I begin to counsel bravery. Slowly, slowly,
    I begin to feel the planets turning, and I am turning
    toward the crackling shower of their sparks

    In regard to this same theme — namely, what we hope to learn from science and from poetry — Dominique Eddé’s recent Kamal Jann (2014) tells the story of individuals and communities whose “usable pasts” are destructively polemic, unscientific, and unpoetic (as contrasted with the hopeful irenic narratives of Lerman and Harris).

    Quantum Frontiers readers who appreciate dark works like Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Melville’s The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade will find in Dominique Eddé a modern master of dark narratives. But brace yourself.

    Conclusion  For me, poet Lerman’s Radiomen is the most enjoyable, hopeful, irenic, funny, and inspiring of these works.

    @book{cite-key, Author = {Harris, Michael}, Publisher =
    {Princeton University Press}, Title = {Mathematics
    Without Apologies: Portrait of a Problematic Vocation},
    Year = {2015}}
    @book{cite-key, Author = {Eleanor Lerman}, Publisher =
    {Sarabande Books}, Title = {The Mystery of Meteors:
    Poems}, Year = {2001}}
    @book{cite-key, Author = {Eleanor Lerman}, Publisher =
    {The {P}ermanen{T} {P}ress}, Title = {Radiomen (a
    Novel)}, Year = {2015}}
    @book{cite-key, Author = {Dominique Edd\'{e}}, Publisher
    = {Seagull Books}, Title = {Kamal Jann}, Year = {2014}}

    • N.B.  For fans of the Star Trek universe, the above narratives can be appreciated as:

      Mathematics Without Apologies is the sequel-story of Data,
      Radiomen is the sequel-story of Seven-of-Nine, and
      Kamal Jann is the sequel-story of Elim Garak.

      Happy reading!

  9. Slightly off-topic, but here’s a free professional opportunity of broad interest to readers of weblogs like Quantum Frontiers:

    SYNOPSIS  The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) will host a Proposers’ Day on 19 May 2015 at the University of Maryland Stamp Student Union to provide information to potential proposers on the objectives of an anticipated Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for the Logical Qubits (LogiQ) program.

    PROGRAM OBJECTIVE AND DESCRIPTION  The LogiQ program in IARPA’s Safe and Secure Operations (SSO) Office is seeking creative technical solutions to the challenge of encoding imperfect physical qubits into a logical qubit that protects against decoherence, gate errors, and deleterious environmental influences.

    While quantum information processing has witnessed tremendous advances in high-fidelity qubit operations and an increase in the size and complexity of controlled quantum computing systems, it still suffers from physical-qubit gate and measurement fidelities that fall short of desired thresholds, multi-qubit systems whose overall performance is inferior to that of isolated qubits, and non-extensible architectures-all of which hinder their path toward fault-tolerance.

    Underpinning the program’s strategy to build a logical qubit is a push for higher fidelity in multi-qubit operations, the pursuit of dynamically controlled experiments in multi-qubit systems to remove entropy from the system during computation, and characterization and mitigation of environmental noise and correlated errors.

    There’s plenty more material on the LogiQ Program Proposer’s Day announcement page.

    Readers of Michael Harris’ book and/or weblog Mathematics Without Apologies (as they are both titled) will appreciate that IARPA is designating stable logical qubits as an avatar (in Harris’ phrase) for catalyzing advances in our general understanding of noise, decoherence, and entropy.

    Conclusion  The physical process of removing von Neumann entropy from systems of qubits/qudits can be appreciated as a mathematical avatar — in Michael Harris’ phrase — for the computational algorithms that (heuristically) are so marvelously effective in removing Boltzmann entropy from atoms/molecules in large-scale quantum simulation software … sufficient to compose (F)foundations for the $120M/5yr investment by the Swiss-based pharmaceutical corporation Sanofi in the Portland-based quantum simulation corporation Schrödinger.

    Hopefully at least some East Coast quantum cognoscenti will attempt/report on this fine workshop!

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