Physics in Verse: Maxwell’s “I come from fields of fractured ice…”

Here’s another lovely bit of physics poetry. Last week it was John Updike on neutrinos. This week it is Scottish mathematican and physicist, James Clerk Maxwell, who is most famous for his theory of electromagnetic radiation (commonly known as Maxwell’s equations).

James Clerk Maxwell and his wife, Katherine,
circa 1869. Credit: Public domain

Maxwell was the first person to realize that magnetic and electric fields are intimately related, and that light (ranging from radio waves to visible light to gamma rays) is the result of oscillating electromagnetic fields.

On the side, Maxwell enjoyed reading and writing poetry, and many of his poems survive in a collection published by his life-long friend, Lewis Campbell, in 1882.

This poem, “To The Chief Musician Upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode“, describes the magic and allure of physical phenomena. Maxwell composed it for his friend and fellow-physicist, Peter Guthrie Tait, and first published it anonymously in Nature in 1871, during the final decade of Maxwell’s life.

A brief word about the title: Peter Tait was the first person to fully discuss the properties of the mathematical symbol, ∇, named the nabla because of its resemblance to a harp. Thus Tait was the “Chief Musician Upon Nabla”. But the title of the poem is often shortened to simply “A Tyndallic Ode”, a reference to fellow-physicist John Tyndall, who had a propensity for a effusive and passionate lecturing style. Tyndall and Maxwell did not always see eye-to-eye in physics or philosophy, and the style of this poem could be seen as a slightly-mocking parody of Tyndall.

In the first five stanzas Maxwell describes many of Tyndall’s research areas: the glacial “fields of fractured ice”, the “microscopic spaces” of molecular physics, the lenses, tubes, electricity, and other instruments of Tyndall’s lab,  an “optically clean” air purification technique, and the nature of sound propagation through “shouting”, “whistling”, “clapping”, and “stamping”.

But Maxwell finishes the poem with a warning to build science upon firm mental foundations as well as fanciful sights and sounds. In the 2014 book “James Clerk Maxwell: Perspectives on his Life and Work“, Stella Pratt-Smith says this shift in the poem “suggests Maxwell’s earnest commitment to the scientist’s vocation as systematically observant and rigorous, rather than simply entertained and enchanted.”

Whatever their disagreements at the time, the lasting scientific legacies of Maxwell and Tyndall are undisputed: both were talented and prolific experimental physicists who contributed much to our modern understanding of light, heat, molecular physics, and magnetism.

To The Chief Musician Upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879)

I come from fields of fractured ice,
Whose wounds are cured by squeezing,
Melting they cool, but in a trice,
Get warm again by freezing.
Here, in the frosty air, the sprays
With fern-like hoar-frost bristle,
There, liquid stars their watery rays
Shoot through the solid crystal.

John Tyndall’s 1857 sketch of the Mer de Glace glacier in the Alps. Credit: Public domain.

I come from empyrean fires-
From microscopic spaces,
Where molecules with fierce desires,
Shiver in hot embraces.
The atoms clash, the spectra flash,
Projected on the screen,
The double D, magnesian b,
And Thallium’s living green.

We place our eye where these dark rays
Unite in this dark focus,
Right on the source of power we gaze,
Without a screen to cloak us.
Then, where the eye was placed at first,
We place a disc of platinum,
It glows, it puckers! will it burst?
How ever shall we flatten him!

John Tyndall’s molecular physics apparatus. Credit: Public domain.

This crystal tube the electric ray
Shows optically clean,
No dust or haze within, but stay!
All has not yet been seen.
What gleams are these of heavenly blue?
What air-drawn form appearing,
What mystic fish, that, ghostlike, through
The empty space is steering?

I light this sympathetic flame,
My faintest wish that answers,
I sing, it sweetly sings the same,
It dances with the dancers.
I shout, I whistle, clap my hands,
And stamp upon the platform,
The flame responds to my commands,
In this form and in that form.

John Tyndall’s setup to demonstrate sound reflection. Credit: Public domain

What means that thrilling, drilling scream,
Protect me! ’tis the siren:
Her heart is fire, her breath is steam,
Her larynx is of iron.
Sun! dart thy beams! in tepid streams,
Rise, viewless exhalations!
And lap me round, that no rude sound
May mar my meditations.

Here let me pause.-These transient facts,
These fugitive impressions,
Must be transformed by mental acts,
To permanent possessions.
Then summon up your grasp of mind,
Your fancy scientific,
Till sights and sounds with thought combine
Become of truth prolific.

Go to! prepare your mental bricks,
Fetch them from every quarter,
Firm on the sand your basement fix
With best sensation mortar.
The top shall rise to heaven on high-
Or such an elevation,
That the swift whirl with which we fly
Shall conquer gravitation.

If you want to read more of Maxwell’s poetry check out his Rigid Body Sings, a poem in the style of poet Robert Burns’ Comin thro’ the Rye, or his highly technical A Problem in Dynamics .

By Tamela Maciel, also known as “pendulum”

Top image credit: “A study in black and ice”. Credit: Glen Darrud via Flickr

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