Physics in Verse: A John Updike Poem about Neutrinos

There is a long history of poets taking Nature as their muse, from the call of the sea to the draw of the wild. But poems about physics phenomena are harder to find.

Some might argue that physicists and poets have little in common: particle physicist Paul Dirac once commented, “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!”

But Dirac was also a firm believer in the inherent beauty of his theories and perhaps would not mind the overlap of physics and poetry that celebrates the magical and beautiful workings of the physical world.

With a bit of digging I’ve uncovered a handful of physics poems: a famous poem by Richard Feynman that was featured on Physics Buzz back in 2010, a few poems which I hope to present over the next few weeks, and this playful one, published in 1960 by American poet and novelist John Updike, which captures the elusive nature of neutrinos. Updike was not a physicist, but he did a remarkable job describing the current view of the physics community, as this article from Symmetry magazine unravels.

Cosmic Gall

by John Updike

Neutrinos, they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.
They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
And, scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
And painless guillotines, they fall
Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed—you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.

Top image: The first observation of a neutrino-induced reaction in a hydrogen bubble chamber. An invisible neutrino arrives from the right and strikes a proton where the three tracks join. The proton, a muon, and a pion then fly off in different directions. Credit: Public domain.

By Tamela Maciel, also known as “pendulum”

You may also read these articles