Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

From Rilke: Enough

April 19, 2013

I read Sonnets to Orpheus in the way one listens to ambient music. It is largely passive. I listen to sounds without trying to pick out tones, entreat images without trying to string them together or decode some meaning. I read it absentmindedly,  occasionally imagining the interior environment of the small Swiss hut Rilke wrote Sonnets in over the course of a few days in a dreary white February some time ago.

Until he grabbed me: In three lines, removed from context by pure distraction, the poet Rilke in his casual way, accidentally explained to me the nature of human endeavor in science.

Even the starry union is deceptive.

But let us now be glad a while

to believe the figure. That’s enough.

From Sonnets to Orpheus, Part 1, Sonnet 11.

Here is the outer limit of what we can see, the edge of our universe: the Cosmic Microwave Background. What it expresses are temperature variations among the photons that are streaming at our satellite eyes from the Beginning of Time, i.e. the Big Bang. It looks almost like noise, but really, this data speaks to how fast the universe is expanding, the universe’s age, and dark matter and dark energy. Planck is instrument that took the data that made this map, which was released last month. It is the third generation of data collecting satellites that has set out to make this map, each improving on the one before, giving us better accuracy, finer resolution, and more reason to believe our own guesses about the origin of everything in the so far observed universe. In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful images in science.

As cosmology pieces together knowledge, maybe some solace can be wrung from “believing the figure,” for now. But don’t forget that observation “is deceptive”: If you can’t convince yourself and your peers to believe the figure, you can’t move forward, you’re stuck. And even if at some point it is comforting or interesting or thrilling to accept a perceived truth–the decontextualized Rilke warns us–we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the itching feeling that this new truth may only be a truth for “a while.” Our knowledge is in constant evolution.

Of course, dear Rilke, on longer timescales, it is never “enough.”


Is my reading of Rilke as such, incorrect? Probably. Yes. Who cares? I’m not a literature student.

On a somewhat unrelated note, Re: Previous post, the daily saga will be reporting in the very near future from the University of California, Berkeley, once again. Let the fun times begin.

Milan by Nokia Phone

February 15, 2013


Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, a.k.a Fancy Shopping Mall. A blue ghost appears to be running by my left side.

After not bringing a camera to Paris, you’d think I would remember to bring one to Milan. Nope. In my defense, there was barely time to remember. In order to get to Milan, I found myself running through the snowy CERN site at noon on a Tuesday, sprinting to the train stop, and arriving at Gare Cornavin with just minutes to spare. To my own bewilderment, I managed to buy the correct (albeit overpriced) ticket from the SBB counter in French. Do I speak French? I asked myself, as I walked back out into the station. I don’t think sobut I just did…sort of. As I soon discovered, it hardly mattered: I was going to Italy.

As the train slogged through the snow-laden alps I found that, there of all places, I had to restrain myself from butting in on a conversation between Americans a few seats down the car. A woman, claiming to be originally from “Cali,” was talking about cities in the US, specifically, “Frisco,” or alternatively, “San Fran.” A word to the wise: When someone claims to be from ‘Frisco, Cali, they most certainly are not. At least not anymore. I’m sorry.*

At any rate, I changed haphazardly into a dress in the reeking train bathroom as it jerked and jolted along. A dress? Indeed. I was going to the Opera. Simone (of “Club Italia” fame, on this blog) had acquired extremely cheap tickets (10 Euros) for a preview at La Scala. Using his superpowers of dexterous logging in and website button überclicking on multiple computers at once, gleaned no doubt from working in experimental physics, he had gotten in on an exclusive, once a year ticket sale. He offered me a ticket, if I could come. While I wasn’t able to escape work until literally the last minute, I did in fact escape. On the train, I got an SMS: “We will have to run.”

As we pulled into the Milano Centrale, I walked to the first car and spotted Simone on the platform. What followed was an all out sprint through the station culminating in a headfirst dive into the backseat of a taxi. Our driver, I can only assume, was cursing aloud as he waved is left hand at unruly people on scooters who passed us on the trafficked streets. Ah, the strange sweetness of silly stereotypes in the flesh; We made it La Scala with 5 minutes to spare.


Snow on the road out of the Mt. Blanc tunnel and Chamonix

Opera? Well, it was Wagner’s Lohengrin. It was, to abandon any respectable arts critic vernacular, totally rad. Why didn’t I use my Nokia phone to take photos inside of La Scala? I’m not sure, but maybe I was a little embarrassed. I was there, awestruck in the folds of red velvet, craning my neck from a box in the most famous opera house in the world, adrift in a sea of fashion savvy Italians with my dress from a second and store in Sweden, my red hair that hadn’t been cut in a year, and my Nokia phone. During  intermission, La Republica tried to interview me, and I am positive it was because I looked so different. Fortunately, I do know one word in Italian: ‘No.’ C’est drôle, la vie! I felt strangely reverent as a pilgrim is reverent, and yet out of place in one of the holy grounds of classical music. Despite, I am amazed to even have had the experience.


Finally: a nice photo of the Fancy Shopping Mall

At 7Am the next morning we hit the road North (Simone had strategically brought his car to Milan) and were back at CERN, ready to work, by lunch. All I got to see in the city was La Scala, the Fancy Shopping Mall, and the façade of the Duomo (not pictured). Not bad for 24 hours, 10 of which was spent in travel, 5 in the opera, and around 7 sleeping.

Go Nokia Phone! And for the record, I don’t think iphones are totally silly.

Grazie for the hours in Milan, Simone and family! Hopefully I will be back one day.  I would love to actually *go inside* the Duomo. I hear it’s all around better than Notre Dame de Paris, but I won’t believe it until I see it! 


*No, I’m not.

figue, figue

October 10, 2012

From the rift in the fig skin flows,
in noiseless explosion, a dense
ruby jam–But those aren’t seeds!
I remember the other children,
the augurers, would cry: Wasp eggs!
Figs are wasp nests, and the eggs
mimic seeds, to hatch in the throat,
you know, to sting the esophagus,
a million, million times.

Now, the pith of the fruit is a luminous red between fingers.
I sit unmoving,  afraid to eat.

Armchair Tranströmer: Från Mars -79

March 25, 2012

From March 2011, Ca-al-li-for-orn-ia

A bit of a silence here, you may have noticed. Calm before the storm, you may have guessed–and you would have guessed right. Let’s just say: PhysicsLand, reprise, Tuesday. Go.

Before all that, before the rush of an April in colder air, there’s this: I wanted to translate my first and favorite Tranströmer, lest March should pass and I should neglect to share it. Here it is, from the book “Det Vilda Torget, ” translated as well as the original.

From March -79

Tired of all who come with words, words but no language
I make my way to the snow-coverd island.
The wilderness has no words.
The unwritten pages spread out in every direction!
I come across the tracks of a deer in the snow.
Language but no words.

Från Mars -79

Trött på alla som kommer med ord, ord men inget språk
for jag till den snötäckta ön.
Det vilda har inga ord.
De oskrivna sidorna breder ut sig åt alla håll!
Jag stöter på spåren av rådjursklövar i snön.
Språk men inga ord.

Armchair Linguistics: Tranströmer

February 25, 2012

I have a book of Tranströmer, untranslated. I got it in the mail. I thought, this should be interesting. I thought, why not? So here comes one. Oh, and let me know if something doesn’t, erm, make sense.

Prelude, from “17 Poems”

Waking up is a skydive from dreaming.
Free from a choking whirl sinks
the traveler, toward the morning’s green zone.
Things flame up. He recognizes- from the
trilling lark’s vantage – the noble systems of treeroots,
their underground swaying lamps. But above ground
there is- in a tropical flood – greenness, with
lifted arms, listening
to the rhythm of an invisible pump. And he
sinks towards the summer, slipping down 
into its bright craters, down
through shafts of greendamp ages
trembling under the sun’s turbine. So it is halted
this vertical journey through the moment and the wings
spread out to the osprey’s perch over rushing water.
The Bronze Age Trumpet’s
outcast tone
hangs over the abyss.
In the day’s first hours consciousness understands the world
just as the hand grips a sunwarmed stone.
The traveler stands beneath the tree. Shall,
after the crash through the whirl of death,
a great light unfold over his head?
Uppvaknandet är ett fallskärmshopp från drömmen.
Fri från den kvävande virveln sjunker
resenären mot morgonens gröna zon.
Tingen flammar upp. Han förnimmer – i dallrande lärkans
position – de mäktiga trädrotsystemens
underjordiskt svängande lampor. Men ovan jord
står – i tropiskt flöde – grönskan, med
lyftade armar, lyssnande
till rytmen från ett osynligt pumpverk. Och han
sjunker mot sommaren, firas ned
i dess bländade krater, ned
genom schakt av grönfuktiga åldrar
skälvande under solturbinen. Så hejdas
denna lodräta färd genom ögonblicket och vingarna breddas
till fiskgjusens vila över ett strömmande vatten.
fredlösa ton
hänger över det bottenlösa.
I dagens första timmar kan medvetandet omfatta världen
som handen griper en solvarm sten.
Resenären står under trädet. Skall,
efter störtningen genom dödens virvel,
ett stort ljus vecklas ut över hans huvud?

Guitar Gods

January 16, 2012

He walks into the aucoustic guitar room, so quietly that I may not have noticed him had he not asked almost immediately:

“Hey, have you taken lessons?”

“Not really, maybe like two or three of them, and that was a long time ago,” I look up from the $400 guitar I had been playing to appraise this high pitched inquisitor.

“Oh,” he says, “Me neither.” He’s about four feet tall, Asian, and most certainly seven years old. He’s got round little glasses and a puffy black jacket. He’s freaking adorable. The kid picks up a guitar and sits down on the stool across from me. The guitar is markedly too big for him but he manages somehow to reach the strings. I stop playing and hold my breath because I’m almost certain I’m about to get schooled out of this Best Buy by a musical prodigy. Just my luck, I think. Here I am in this Best Buy, feeling pretty OK about my mediocre ability to have a good time playing the guitars, and this kid walks in.

“Do you have a guitar strap?” he asks all of a sudden, before playing a single chord.

“No, I don’t have one,”

“I really, really want one.” He looks down a the guitar which is black and larger than his entire body. “I’ve never played on a real guitar like this before. But I need a big one. A big one to play Blackbird on.” He sighs and starts playing the first couple notes. He’s not bad. He may be prodigy material, but I’m relieved to realize that I’m not about to get totally blown out of the water. Phew, that was a close one. We both keep playing, a dissonant duet: me whatever I was already playing, he the first three notes of Blackbird over and over again.

“Do you get finger picking?” He stops playing and looks over at me.

“Not entirely: It’s pretty tough, right?”

“Yeah, it’s really hard! I don’t get finger picking!”

“Well I bet if you keep practicing one day you’ll be really, really good.” Suddenly I realize I’m sitting at a different end of that proverbial table, you know, the one that turns on around you without even making a sound. No longer am I the kid fooling around with the guitar in the shop (for me it was Redemption Song, not Blackbird) but instead I’m the adult fooling around with the guitar in the shop and trying to offer advice that I (the kid me) never really followed. But this kid, maybe he’s smarter than I was; he smiles and doesn’t answer. Instead gets up to put the large guitar back on the rack. I offer him the one I had been playing, because it’s a bit smaller, in tune and it’s probably time for me to get going anyway.

“No thanks, I should probably leave this room too, before I break somethun,” as he follows me out the door. Ah, a pragmatist, after all.

Land of Enchantment

January 9, 2012

What I could say about New Mexico is almost not worth the saying. As a geologist I see the rocks, as a physicist I see the light, as a mountain biker I see the trails. All the while I listen, trying to hear the words that come along with it all (iron seeped cliffs and resting lava flows, sagebrush and breathless cindercones,  painted sands and brown pueblos. Oh, and the sun, the sun, the watery sun!) but eventually realize that New Mexico by no means belongs to me. It’s a place so saturated by creation and myth and creation myth, that I’m certain New Mexico has been said better. It’s a place and a time you should see for yourself; how incredibly vast this country is!

From Georgia O’Keeffe,

From Not Georgia O’Keeffe,

And then there’s Beirut,

And for some reason, Scientists too:



Open Letters: to the GRE

November 27, 2011

Dear Numbskulls Who Grade the GRE Writing Section,

I am simply a concerned test taker, please do excuse my insubordination, but I wanted to bring to your attention that William Faulkner would have failed your silly little test, just like I did.

Oh, but you know who he is, right? He’s f***ing William Faulkner. Do you know who you are? You spend your days in whitewalled rooms, inventing mundane questions and reading thousands of essays, all of them poorly written by the sordid masses of PhD hopefuls who gleefully sacrifice all rhetorical flair for the sake of your tyrannous test. William Faulkner, on the other hand, spent his days inventing literature, testing the bounds of the English language and and getting rancorously drunk and subsequently flying airplanes into barns.

As it happens, there are choices we all make in life. Apparently you made the choice to decide that I am an utter failure at this thing you call ‘writing.’ I am, now, in the spirit of William Faulkner, choosing to ignore your decision entirely.

So go ahead. Fail me. When my novel comes out, we’ll see who’s laughing.



Who is, coincidentally, wholeheartedly proud of every single goddamn run on sentence in that last paragraph.


Read my Stupid Art 3

November 22, 2011

A brief interlude from political theatrics to bring you more stupid art. I’ve got about ten of these things on backlog, but I won’t promise to post them all. From a few weeks ago, I give you an attempt at awkward family dynamics, in 1,000 words.

Prompt: Home, Metaphorically Family
The house could have been made of plastic sandals, tangled strings and bloated toes. The smell of cigarettes had attacked the building—a square-shouldered concrete-blocked structure—like some sort of disease. The fringes of the carpets had turned decrepit, and big brown drops had formed on the ceiling in gelatinous stalactites caving the interior further in upon itself in a singular incandescent glow—uncomfortably luminescent like mustard on a May morning. Even the teddy bear that used to be white is yellow-fringed now. Gleaning pleasure from corruption, he smiles ghoulishly in his mauve bow tie from his throne on the overstuffed, floral patterned couch.

Above the television is the head of an elk, its gaze bound in glass but casting a protective quality over the small living room. The living room is connected through to the smaller, linoleum-floored kitchen. There is breakfast bar with no stools, a round pine table with four chairs, and a green kitchen door with a window in it. Outside is Southeastern Idaho, where the Snake River plain makes a broad and open swale of pungent volcanic rock, and in winter, a rush of frozen grey air and rust-tinted slush.

Martha collects amber-colored glass bowls and souvenir ashtrays from capital cities. Bill collects coins and used bullets. Thanks to this, there are little round things full of other little round things dotting every corner, every tabletop of this secretly roach-bound, smoke-painted edifice. And yet there’s a precarious order to it, the clutter of this humble abode.

The son enters through the kitchen door. He stands for a moment above the table, fighting the illusion of falling as the salt and peppershakers sit plastically before him. The bird clock on the wall makes the sound of a woodland swallow: it is two o’clock, afternoon on a Sunday.

“Welcome home,” Martha’s cheeks are rounded by the TV glow as she sits smoking, watching a rerun of Wheel of Fortune with the mute button on. A large ambereyed cat sits on the back of her chair; its tale switches metronomically.

“Not gonna ask were you where last night, son.” She doesn’t look away from the television. Her face is large and reddened with swollen capillaries; her hair is brown and motionless in tight curls about her ears. “I’m just hopin’ it wasn’t anywhere making trouble.”

The son makes no answer. Instead he pulls a gallon of whole milk out of a plastic shopping bag and places it with a solid thud on the kitchen table. He opens the refrigerator and stoops down, sticking his head inside. There’s leftover pasta. A can of refried beans, halfway eaten. A tray of lime Jell-o and a high-fat tract of ground beef resting plastic-wrapped in a blue Styrofoam tray. He sets the gallon of milk on the
center shelf.

“You know me, mom.” He says at last. “I don’t make trouble.”

He opens the freezer; it’s stuffed with cuts of venison wrapped in white paper.

“That’s not what Mrs. Jakowsky says,” Martha reaches for the remote and flips off the TV. It was true though. He’d never been in any real sort of trouble at school, save for playing hooky every now and again, but that’s just what normal kinds of teenagers do now and again anyways, being teenagers and all. He’d just been disappearing a bit more often than normal these days, and of course since Martha had started to worry, folks had started to talk.

“Well, she doesn’t know anything.” He mumbles.

“That’s just pure disrespect right there.” Martha raised her voice a little bit. The cat jumps down from the back of her chair and trots down the hallway.

“Alright well maybe she knows some things, but she doesn’t know everything.” Martha can’t seem to come up with a way to counter that one. Instead, she taps the ashes from her cigarette into the ashtray on the table next to her. The ashtray reads: Denver, Colorado.

“You just go off and I don’t know what you’re doing.”

“You don’t need to worry about me, mom”

“I know, honey, you can take care of yourself now. And I ‘spose it just isn’t my problem anymore.” Martha sighs. Now he doesn’t answer so instead walks into the living room and sits down on the couch, all but ignoring the bow-tied and grinning teddy perched beside him.

In a moment, kitchen door beats open again. A German Shepard scuttles in around heavy boot steps heralding the entrance of a tall and bellied fellow with a thick gray mustache. It’s Bill.

“Jesus, the cold is here. I was even afraid for a second there that the car wouldn’t start. I see you decided to join us again, Mitchell.” He glances over at his son, who staring foal-eyed down the hall where the German Shepard ran off in the same direction as the cat. Bill pulls a gallon of whole milk out of a plastic shopping bag and places it on the kitchen table with a solid thud. Opening the fridge he discovers the other gallon of milk resting complacently on the center shelf. His mouth sours for a moment, but then he shrugs and simply places his milk next to the one that’s already, inexplicably there.

“Car wouldn’t start? Is that what you said?” Martha sounds worried.

“No, no honey it started. It was just I was afraid it wouldn’t.” Bill pulls the car keys out of his pocket and sets them in a repurposed ashtray, reading Annapolis, Maryland resting on the counter.

“I heard from Mr. Wienberger down at Lonnie’s that there was some ruckus created out on the Olson’s property last night.” He walks heavily into the living room and plops down on the other side of the couch, creaking under his weight. His legs splay out before him and he stretches him arms up behind his head.

“Some sorta small natural gas line explosion, not big enough to do any damage and thank God far enough away from anyone or anything, but he’ll have to replace the tank, that’s for sure. May be heating his house on wood for a few days.”

Martha shoots a daggered glance at her son, but it’s no good: his face, at least, is the very picture of innocence.

“God forbid anyone be without heat or electric in this weather.” Bill muses, his eyes closing, his head tilting back and yawning enormously.

Corrections and Updates

November 18, 2011

Updates and Corrections to my last post:

1. the man with a gun who was shot by police at the Haas school of business died in the hospital.

2. SF Chron reports 10,000 people at on Sproul Plaza tuesday night, and order of magnitude more than my original claim of 1,000. My people estimation skills must be inept. (Or are they?) the daily saga…regrets the error?

3. Physics 105 had a discussion about the protest. It was like a dream come true, to have the opportunity to hear my classmates opinions. Scientists, they are smart folks, and they care, they really do. More on this later.

4. I quote (formatting intact) from an email sent out the entire campus from the UC Chancellor:

“To the Campus Community:

We all share the distress and anger at the State of California’s disinvestment in public higher education.


The issues require bold action and time is short. I will inform you of the time and place as soon as possible.

Robert J. Birgeneau,

4. the Occupy camp was bulldozed last night. Architecture students devised a scheme of suspending tents with balloons over the plaza.

5. I don’t know what.