The laws of quantum mechanics and relativity make the leap from textbook prose to spoken verse in a new collaboration created by Caius Fellow Stephen Hawking and the poet Sarah Howe, a Caius Research Fellow for the past five years.
The pair have collaborated on a new poetry reading for National Poetry Day on October 8, which this year aims to inspire the nation to find the poet within themselves. For Hawking and Howe, there is a twist: the poet writes about physics and Hawking, the world-renowned physicist, recites the poem.
Howe’s sonnet, Relativity, is a delicate yet black hole-dense work whose 14 lines explore some of the complexities of space and time that physics seeks to explain – complexities so mysterious scientists must reach for metaphor to convey them. Howe, used to conversations with her scientist colleagues over lunch at Caius, is fascinated by science’s borrowing of the poet’s tool – imagery - “to describe and communicate itself”.
In an essay on the background to her poem, she writes that this reliance was “a recurring theme of my chats with scientific colleagues, who in their teaching come up with analogies to explain complex ideas for their students, or phenomena taking place at a level we can’t see.
“They were conscious too of how these metaphors can mislead, making the known and the unknown seem more alike than they really are. I wanted to explore that tension in ‘Relativity,’ whose title points to Einstein’s celebrated theory of 1915, a hundred years old this year.”
Howe, born in Hong Kong to a Chinese mother and British father, was commissioned to write a poem for National Poetry Day, after being shortlisted for a Forward Prize for her first poetry collection, Loop of Jade (Chatto & Wyndus). The theme was “light”, and she recalls thinking first “paradoxically of its absence: the black holes whose mysteries Professor Hawking has spent his career working to unfold”.
Her poem finished, Howe dedicated the work (in full below) to Hawking, her fellow academic at Caius and famously the author of a Brief History of Time – a book that had awed her as a teenager. The physicist asked to meet her and offered to read her work – though he warned his synthesised voice was “not very musical” and “originally designed for a telephone directory”. In fact, Howe says, Hawking’s voice has “a rhythm and harmonics all of its own”, and the perfect aptness of reader and subject matter provides a unique extra dimension. “I tried to reassure him. I really like the contrast between the poetic content and the machine quality of his voice.”
The poem moves from panicked waking in darkness through an exploration of the “double life” led by light as both wave and particle, revealed by quantum physics, and Einstein’s brain-jangling theory that time is affected by velocity. With light shed on such mysteries, concludes Howe, “might not our eyes adjust to the dark?”.
Hawking recites “Relativity” in a short film created by the artist Bridget Smith – one of four shorts combining the work of artists, poets and actors for National Poetry Day. Smith’s film, which can be downloaded as a screen-saver and is designed to be shared on social media, features silvery carbon fragments hypnotically flowing in waves across a dark screen.
“I like this idea that [the poem] might completely and utterly out of the blue drop into somebody’s day and touch someone who wouldn’t necessarily pick up a poetry book,” says Howe, who moved on from Caius this summer. She is now a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, where she is working on a new collection of poems before returning to the UK next year to take up a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at University College, London.
National Poetry day was founded by the Forward Arts Foundation 21 years ago, and last year reached more than 50 million people. The film-poems are co-commissioned by Thirteen Ways and The Space in partnership with National Poetry Day and the BBC. The BBC is also currently running a ‘Contains Strong Language’ season, celebrating the power of poetry.
For Stephen Hawking
When we wake up brushed by panic in the dark
our pupils grope for the shape of things we know.
Photons loosed from slits like greyhounds at the track
reveal light’s doubleness in their cast shadows
that stripe a dimmed lab’s wall – particles no more –
and with a wave bid all certainties goodbye.
For what’s sure in a universe that dopplers
away like a siren’s midnight cry? They say
a flash seen from on and off a hurtling train
will explain why time dilates like a perfect
afternoon; predicts black holes where parallel lines
will meet, whose stark horizon even starlight,
bent in its tracks, can’t resist. If we can think
this far, might not our eyes adjust to the dark?