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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"


  1. Today is Feynman's birthday. It might have been nice to (re)publish his poem. He would have been 97.

    1. Absolutely! It's a lovely poem and well worth a read, especially on May 11th. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Pauli's Poltergeist

    by John E. Gray

    'Tis not often
    a correction must be made
    to a poem.
    Mercurial science, the subject:
    particle physics.
    A writer takes risks.

    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. . . (Updike)

    The error laid bare in Albuquerque.
    Experimental results announced
    the case,
    building for years.
    They are not entirely without heft.

    Done purely for the intellectual thrill,
    a beauty all their own.
    Donning helmets with Cyclopean lights,
    physicists crowd a clattering elevator,
    the daily commute down the mine shaft.
    They trudge the rocky corridor
    to the detector.

    The brightly lit subterranean lab
    has 10,000 squinting electronic eyes
    surrounding a Fulleresque scaffolding
    Suspended inside an artificial lake.
    10 stories deep,
    a large acrylic sphere holds
    tons; a substance
    heavy water.
    Beefed up hydrogen
    an extra neutron in their cores.
    Day by day
    they wait:
    a neutrino speeding through the earth
    to collide
    a heavy hydrogen nucleus.

    The result
    a tiny flash (Cherenkov radiation),
    from the center
    a wink of light
    a traveler from the sun.
    Cosmic Gall,
    insouciant as neutrinos are.
    They do occasionally consort,
    with their neighbors.

    A sad day for poetry.
    "They have no charge and little mass"
    doesn't ring the same.
    Someone should write a poem about it.

    Copyright © 2005, John E. Gray
    * With thanks to George Johnson for suggesting the topic.

    found here:

    1. Poetry is Nice but is not Physics. Neutrinos are very small, having the nominal quantity of mass and of energy. So to me, a neutrino has to be the particle of all deities.

      Grazzie il mio amico Signore Enrico Fermi !

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I found the following in a copy of Wireless World in 1969, although as a callow student I failed to note the issue number or the author. this is the first time I have shared it. Enjoy.

    The Neutron

    When a pion an innocent proton seduces
    with neither excuses
    nor scorn
    for its shameful condition
    without intermission
    the proton produces
    a neutron is born.
    What love have you known,
    O neutron full grown,
    as you bombinate into the vacuum alone?
    Its spin is a half and its mass is quite large
    - about one A.M.U. - but it hasn’t a charge;
    though it finds satisfaction
    in strong interaction,
    it doesn’t experience coulombic attraction.
    But what can you borrow
    of love joy or sorrow,
    O neutron, when life has so short a tomorrow?
    Within its
    twelve minutes
    comes disintegration,
    which leaves an electron in mute desolation
    & also another ingenuous proton
    for other unscrupulous pions to dote on
    & last a neutrino:
    alas one can see no
    fulfilment for such a leptonic bambino -
    no loving, no sinning -
    just spinning and spinning -
    eight times through the globe without ever beginning...
    a cycle mechanic -
    no anguish or panic -
    for such is the pattern of life inorganic.
    O better
    the fret a
    poor human endures
    than the neutron’s dichotic


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