Kevin Gunn, the current Poet Laureate of Livermore, decided last month he wanted to celebrate science before his term expired. So he created a contest called Poetry in a Test Tube. It was open to any resident regardless of age. He wasn’t sure how many people would enter, and because I know how it feels to sit at an open mic with only a few people in attendance, I wrote a science poem and sent it in.
Originally I planned to do a poem about Albert Einstein because he was Swiss like my grandparents, but as I conducted my research, I was increasingly distracted by Sir Isaac Newton. Eventually I wrote a poem about him instead.
It turns out Newton many have suffered from bipolar disorder and also could have been on the autism spectrum. Yet he made countless scientific discoveries until his death at age 84. He developed calculus and didn’t consider it important! Just a convenient way for him to think numerically. In short, the man was pretty freaking amazing.
Here’s the poem I entered:
SIR ISAAC NEWTON, 1642-1726
Calculus, optics, laws of motion,
the first estimate of the speed of sound.
So many discoveries buried like seeds
in a premature infant, waiting to root
in a mind’s fertile soil, waiting for
the spark that would ignite the world.
Prisms, physics, universal gravitation,
color spectrums and reflecting telescopes.
Did he know he was brilliant? Taste
the sweet mead of genius as he untangled
thorny knots? Or was it craving, an obsession
to discover what others never dreamed?
He marveled at the night sky, saw sequenced
equations sailing through stars, watched
an apple fall, and in its descent found gravity.
He calculated trajectories of comets, the push
and pull of tides, composed in furious formulae,
made melodies of math and motion.
For eight decades he swam in the ocean
of knowledge, rode tidal waves of euphoria,
fought undertows of despair, struggled with
conversation, never savored love nor friendship.
Some might call this failure, but I see imperfect
perfection, the most human trait of all.
The numbers sang arias as he crafted infinite
theories, ordering the universe with metered
precision. Was the music enough to fill
his life? Three hundred fifty years later,
its transcendent tune flows through ours—
a scientific refrain echoed around the globe.
Kevin had over 30 entries in the first-ever science poetry contest. Last weekend, he held a reading and the poems were terrific. (There was a seven-year-old and a thirteen-year-old—both girls—who knocked it out of the park.) They announced the winners, and my poem was selected for first prize! I was grateful and pleased—who wouldn’t be?—and really, really surprised.
Nate, however, shrugged and said, “I knew you’d win.”
My daughter listened to the poem, then asked me to turn on the music.
I hope this contest becomes an annual tradition.
Until next time,