There was a young lady named Bright
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.
Einstein developed his theory of general relativity between 1907 and 1915, with contributions by many others after 1915. The final form of general relativity was published in 1916.
This limerick – which first appeared anonymously in Punch magazine in December 1923 – shows that Einstein’s ideas had percolated into the mainstream. A slightly different version appeared in the Poughkeepsie Eagle a year later, also without attribution.
Its author was Arthur Henry Reginald Buller (1874– 1944), a British–Canadian mycologist. In 1943 he wrote a sequel:
To her friends said the Bright one in chatter
“I have learned something new about matter:
As my speed was so great,
Much increased was my weight,
Yet I failed to become any fatter.”
If relativity is ‘the the dependence of various physical phenomena on relative motion of the observer and the observed objects, especially regarding the nature and behavior of light, space, time, and gravity’ then take a look at this poem and listen to Stephen Hawken reading it.
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?
Howe’s sonnet explores the complexities of space and time that physics seeks to explain. These are matters that scientists seek metaphors to explain – complexities so mysterious scientists must reach for metaphor to convey them. Hawken’s reading of the poem – in his mechanical voice designed as he has put it “for the telephone directory” – has a mesmerizing quality. It brings an otherworldly quality and depth to the words that seems appropriate to the vastness of the ideas and theories the words try to convey.
The poem tells of a familiar situation – waking in the dark “brushed by panic” – and leads into the duality of light as wave and particle. With light shed on the mysteries, the poem asks: “might not our eyes adjust to the dark?”
The film was created by Bridget Smith for National Poetry day in 2015 – a relativity anniversary. It features silvery carbon fragments floating in waves across a dark screen – the perfect backdrop for Hawken’s voice and Howe’s words.