Nobel Prize: A physicist and a poet expand our universe

The year's Nobel Prize winners in physics and literature both change the way we think

October 16, 2011|By Michael Corbin

I told some friends that Tomas Tranströmer had won the Nobel Prize. Some responded, "Who?" and others said that it was cool that someone in Baltimore had won the Nobel.

This latter group, of course, had heard the local hubbub and were thinking about Adam Riess at the Johns Hopkins University, who (along with two other physicists) was awarded the Nobel in physics for showing that the universe is still expanding. Mr. Riess was able to infer this by observing close by and further away supernovae. And contrary to the expectation of universe observers who thought that the cosmos would be slowing down by now, so long after the big bang, Mr. Riess showed that the expansion of the universe is actually speeding up. Who knew?

The Nobel Prize confers a strange kind of celebrity, particularly in America, where celebrity attainment and study are an exact, natural science. Something is a little mushy in the criteria for that Nobel Prize award though, from the vantage point of America. They even gave one to Barack Obama, didn't they? I think a lot of people had the same hope for the Obama presidency: bending the universe toward justice.

I started reading Mr. Tranströmer about 25 years ago. The publisher New Directions had brought him out in translation from his native Swedish, and I had found a dusty copy in a used book shop in Washington, D.C., when I thought poetry was the something that could effect the expansion or contraction of the universe. His poems seemed to me like a truth about our time, like Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot," but allowing for something more beautiful, pleasurable, possible, while we wait.

"The Under Secretary leans forward and draws an X/and her ear-drops dangle like swords of Damocles./As a mottled butterfly is invisible against the ground/so the demon merges with the opened newspaper." So Mr. Tranströmer writes in his poem "National Insecurity" from his "New and Collected Poems."

I stopped reading poetry for a while because I thought it didn't really matter. It was only poetry after all — can't really change anything.

However, years later, I was working in the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center on Gay Street, teaching English. Late one night, I was putting my lesson plan together and I was thinking about how to reach a student who had just witnessed a death in the streets of Baltimore.

Fumbling and procrastinating, I pulled a volume of Tranströmer poems from my shelf. Mr. Tranströmer was never part of any university or academic program of writing, the way so many poets are today. He spent most of his professional life as a psychologist in a juvenile detention facility, dealing with incarcerated young people.

When I came upon Mr. Tranströmer's poem "After a Death," I knew I had the heart of a lesson: "Once there was a shock/that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail./It keeps us inside. It makes the TV pictures snowy./It settles in cold drops on the telephone wires."

The way most lessons go inside a detention facility — and, really, the way they go in life — you hope only for moments of epiphany, insight, wisdom about how the universe works.

The poem was a success. We sat in a circle; the student who had experienced death led the discussion. We talked until the guards came to take us away.

The last stanza of "After a Death" goes like this: "It is still beautiful to hear the heart beat/but often the shadow seems more real than the body./The samurai looks insignificant beside his armor of black dragon scales."

When asked by New Scientist magazine about what he was going to do next, before the Nobel that went to Mr. Tranströmer was announced, Adam Riess joked, "Well there's still the literature prize this week …"

I imagine Adam Riess' expanding universe, and I'm glad Baltimore got some international props from the Nobel judges for his poetry of the cosmos. An obscure Swedish poet has also, almost simultaneously, confirmed that the expansion of the universe has not slowed down. We here in our small outpost of the universe should take note.

Michael Corbin lives in Baltimore. His email is mcx5@verizon.net.

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