Illuminating the Connections between Science and Poetry

Radcliffe Fellow’s Poem, Read by Stephen Hawking
Photo by Tony RinaldoPhoto by Tony Rinaldo
@ The Radcliffe Institute
October 7, 2015

Thursday, October 8, 2015, is National Poetry Day in the United Kingdom, and the theme for the year is “light.” With that in mind, Sarah Howe wrote a poem dedicated to physicist Stephen Hawking—one inspired by her love of science and her exploration of the universe’s mysteries.

Hawking learned about Howe’s efforts and invited her to read her draft to him. He then recorded a version via his voice processor, and later, the British artist Bridget Smith combined the audio with images of graphite particles in motion.

Howe is a Hong Kong–born British poet who is at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University this year as the Frieda L. Miller Fellow. She has written about the enduring connection between science and poetry, meeting Hawking, her childhood interest in science, the Cambridge University connection she shares with Hawking, the 100th anniversary of Einstein discovering the theory of general relativity in 1915, and more.

She described how watching Hawking’s labor-intensive and time-consuming efforts to communicate have intensified her appreciation for language:

Watching up close the painstaking process of cheek twitches and scrolling word-menus by which Hawking communicates—it took him a quarter of an hour to type a single sentence, which then boomed from the speaker into the quiet room—filled me with a sense of the preciousness of language. Even as he offered to read my poem for National Poetry Day, he was self-deprecating about the synthesized voice he says he now thinks in: It is not very musical. To the contrary, I tried to reassure him; it has a rhythm and harmonics all of its own. Listening to recording after recording, I’d tried to hear it in my mind as I wrote and re-wrote my lines. It was originally designed for a telephone directory, he added, with what I imagined was a chuckle. We’d shared a joke earlier about the strings of random words that flash up on his screen whenever the cheek-sensor picks up stray movements, when he’s eating, say, or looking round the room: he should publish a volume of experimental poems.

Reading the poem and watching the video, below, are wonderful ways to celebrate UK National Poetry Day along with the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s momentous discovery. It’s also a good way to get ready for Sarah Howe’s presentation and poetry reading at the Radcliffe Institute on October 28. That event is free, open to the public, and will take place in Radcliffe Yard. 


For Stephen Hawking

By Sarah Howe

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 wallparticles 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?


More information about the poetry project can be found online in an article in the Guardian. More information about Sarah Howe can be found on her website.


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