The Quantum Poet Experience
Some books simply beg to be tested. When I was sent a review copy of Quantum Physics for Poets I looked at the title and the authors and said “I don’t care if one of the authors has a Nobel Prize; can poets write from this book?” Fortunately for me, I have a creative writing class with a love of poetry. I showed them the book and I asked my question.
They said “We want to know, too.”
I then said “It means learning some science.”
They said “We love science.”
I said “Do you love science enough to spend the whole of this term writing poetry about it?”
They asked “Do you want a tanka first, or a sonnet?”
I said “I might have to teach you sonnets.”
They said “Soon, please.”
I won’t take you through the whole term, but I thought I would tell you about the experience. I’ve been blogging it as I go, too, because I asked my blog readers if they were interested in playing along, and they were enthusiastic. This means that the book is getting a workout.
I’ve noticed a difference in the players-at-home when I explained what I taught the class as compared to when I just posted key terms and let them sort it out for themselves. It was easier for most people, I suspect (except the physicist/poet, naturally) to write poetry when there was more explanation than when there was merely a simple prompt. Mind you, one reader posted a very funny poem on Facebook, listing all the ways she found quantum physics impossible to understand. She used Wikipedia for explanations, lacking the ‘textbook.’ Is this evidence that Quantum Physics for Poets beats the entries on Wikipedia for reader friendliness?
For the first session, we discussed some of the major differences between classical science and quantum physics. We also examined the difference between a physics that firmly predicted outcomes and one that relied on possibilities. We used the word “probabilities” a lot and mentioned the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The class was disappointed we couldn’t go into the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle immediately, because they thought it was a concept particularly suited to poets.
What we did with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle was deal with it a little at the time. This was following the book, where it was mentioned quite a bit but actual detail was given a few pages later. Cat jokes were made. I hasten to add that no jokes about torturing cats were made. Nor jokes about torturing physicists. My class was far more interested in understanding how the impossibility of knowing a state without changing it could make sense to engage in cruelty to physicists.
The discussion was the fascinating bit that first day. My students were most interested in the shift in understanding the world that quantum physics represents. They felt that it’s closer to the way they themselves see the world than the science they were taught at school. In fact, by week four they were saying that they wished it was the science they had been taught in school.
To reflect their linking quantum physicists with the way they themselves perceived reality, they talked about their lives in poetry, showing the difference between predictive science and science where stuff can go wrong. We divided the poems the class wrote into two groups: some reflected the world view of classical science and some of quantum.
What I loved as a teacher (and one with no advanced science whatsoever—for those who are new to this column, my university training is in history, writing and teaching) was the way the first section of the book presented itself so very clearly for educational use. It was easy to find parallels for the authors’ explanations and to advance alternate explanations when concepts weren’t clear to students. The writing was clear and entirely lacked condescension. This is important—the tone of the book influences the tone of the teacher—I would have taught with much sarcasm if the text had treated me as an idiot.
We were all excited about the experiment from the start, because the first class went very well indeed. Every student understood the concepts and all of them were inspired to write from those concepts. The students are adults, but most of them have had big chunks missing from their education. If they can continue to understand quantum physics from my explanations from this book, then the book is doing its job.
In week two, however, I made things more complex (by request). I added unfamiliar poetic forms to the mix. We started with epigrams and Alexander Pope was more popular than Martial (sorry Martial!).
Epigrams were a major sticking point. The same class that was too gentle to make nasty jokes about the fate of cats in uncertain places simply didn'’t want to say cruel things about people, however wittily. They learned the form, however and then we went back to the stuff of their dreams.
That day we spent a significant amount of time on the book. We talked about Schrödinger’s cat (again) and waves and particles and the consequences of knowledge and uncertainty. We talked more about probability and have decided that ‘probability’ really had to be our word-of-the-day next week (that week's was ‘repudiate,’ because it fitted with epigrams) and might even be worthy of a word collage. We focussed a great deal on statistics and what different levels of statistical certainty meant to being able to keep classical science while really believing that reality doesn’t work that way (polygamy in science!).
The straightforwardness of some of the simple basics of quantum physics—we’re not deluding ourselves that we have advanced beyond the first ten minutes of a serious class in the subject—came up again. Students commented time after time that it was emotionally easier for us ordinary mortals than most classical science because of the fuzziness of everyday life. I blogged that I wasn’t sure that physicists would agree with me:
“Because at this point in most books on quantum physics,” I explained, “there are many warnings on how difficult it is for small minds to grasp. My small mind demonstrated the need for reliable outcomes in classical science through dropping a pen and the basic calculations inherent in quantum physics with the relationship between the Canberra bus timetable and busses actually arriving. Then I managed to make my students doubt the reliability of gravity to such an extent that many pens were dropped. . . . We all agreed that there’s a difference between something happening 99.9999999999999% of the time and 100% of the time, but that we (as pen-droppers) might not see that difference and that maybe scientists would be able to assume that things weren’t inevitable, but were still reliable enough to function.”
My students found the notion that God plays dice with the universe very straightforward. These are adults, as I have said, and have had particularly challenging lives. They understand lack of certainty. I wonder if a different class would find it frightening that we don’t know the rules?
My own biggest concern was about my understanding of the science. It all seemed too easy. I asked more knowledgeable friends and they thought I was fine.
I looked back at the students’ poetry at this point and realised that some of them understood everything, but that some had translated concepts too far and missed the point entirely. It was the understandability of it all. It had lured them into false equivalencies.
The next week, therefore, we spent the whole of our physics time trying to understand what the quantum state was. The role of the observer was the key point and my favourite comment by a student was that this would work very well for love poetry.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work at all well for sonnets, which was our poetic form of the day (by request). Sonnets are apparently so much more complicated that the quantum state (in terms of simple conceptualisation for someone who has never encountered either before) that we only worked on Italian (Petrarchan) sonnets that day. We decided to call them the “Dancing Queen” sonnet form, because of the rhyme scheme in the octavo (ABBAABBA). Then we did our probability word collage and left it on the whiteboard to vex the women’s group that has the classroom area after us.
At the end of the class, I asked for thoughts. Sonnets are difficult, was the consensus, but the students wanted to buy their own copies of that book. “Science should have been taught that way at school. We might have stuck with it, then.”
I was going to document the full eight weeks, but that testament is such a good summary of the experience that I’ll leave it. I have some small reservations about the book. For instance, we’re told over and over how terrified Great Minds were about the consequences of their own work and about the development of quantum physics, early in the book—two or three horrified statements would have been enough. To be very honest, however, it’s easy to nitpick.
When a class with no real science background is taught by a teacher who had no idea of quantum physics until she started writing a time travel novel (which is a different story) and they develop a deep craving for the book for its own sake, regardless of the poetry that could be written—that book is a good book. It’s just as well it is a good book, because right now it looks as if I may be teaching from it all year.
Books mentioned in this column:
Gillian Polack is based in Canberra, Australia. She is mainly a writer, editor and educator. Her most recent print publications are a novel (Life through Cellophane, Eneit Press, 2009), an anthology (Masques, CSfG Publishing, 2009, co-edited with Scott Hopkins), two short stories and a slew of articles. Her newest anthology is Baggage, published by Eneit Press (2010).One of her short stories won a Victorian Ministry of the Arts award a long time ago, and three have (more recently) been listed as recommended reading in international lists of world's best fantasy and science fiction short stories. She received a Macquarie Bank Fellowship and a Blue Mountains Fellowship to work on novels at Varuna, an Australian writers' residence in the Blue Mountains. Gillian has a doctorate in Medieval history from the University of Sydney. She researches food history and also the Middle Ages, pulls the writing of others to pieces, is fascinated by almost everything, cooks and etc. Currently she explains 'etc' as including Arthuriana, emotional cruelty to ants, and learning how not to be ill. She is the proud owner of some very pretty fans, a disarticulated skull named Perceval, and 6,000 books. Contact Gillian.