John Updike passed away two days ago, on Tuesday, January 27, and The New York Times published a detailed obituary. While the obituary did a very good job of summarizing his life and works, it didn’t mention the aspect of Updike’s life that made the biggest impression on me—his longstanding interest in science.
Thirty years ago, while a chemistry graduate student at Harvard, I lived and worked as a “caretaker” for the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. This meant that my wife and I lived in the upstairs attic apartment of a stately house, known as Walter Lippmann House, just three blocks from Harvard Yard. Our presence provided added security for this house, which served as the headquarters of the Nieman Foundation. We also had the job of setting up and serving snacks and meals for the many notables that passed through the house. At least three times each week, a well-known academic, writer, politician, or artist would give an informal presentation to the 20-25 Nieman Fellows, mid-career journalists who were spending the year at Harvard. After serving the lunch, I would sit at the back of the room and listen to the presentation.
John Updike was one of those notables, and I was fortunate to hear him and meet him on at least two different occasions. Rubbing shoulders with the famous and powerful is part of the allure of a place like Harvard. While the shoulder-rubbing hasn’t profoundly changed the course of my life, it furnishes a storehouse of good memories.
My memory of John Updike involves science. When asked by one of the Nieman Fellows about what books and periodicals he regularly read, Updike surprised all of us by mentioning Scientific American. He said that he was a regular reader and that a writer and thinker in the 20th century should really be interested and involved in science.
His specific mention of science has come back to me time after time in the past three decades. It’s given me the courage to dabble in creative writing about science.
I’ve read some of Updike’s poems, essays, and novels over the years (although certainly not all of them – he was incredibly prolific) and have seen evidence of his fascination with science. He also frequently wrote about the relationship between science and religion.
Here are two of his poems that prove, beyond a doubt, that he “got” science. He understood it, and he found words to bring it alive. He’ll be missed.
This short poem about neutrinos, “Cosmic Gall,” was quoted by the Nobel Prize committee when it gave the 1995 Nobel Prize in Physics to Frederick Reines for the detection of the neutrino. (Gratuitous, editorial comment: It’s a pity and a scandal that Updike himself never received the Nobel Prize for Literature.)
Here are the opening lines of “Cosmic Gall”:
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.
And here’s a longer poem, “The Dance of the Solids,” that Updike wrote after reading the September 1967 issue of Scientific American, which was devoted to the science of materials:
Here’s the final stanza:
Textbooks and Heaven only are ideal;
Solidity is an imperfect state.
Within the cracked and dislocated Real
Nonstoichiometric crystals dominate.
Stray Atoms sully and precipitate;
Strange holes, excitons, wander loose; because
Of Dangling Bonds, a chemical Substrate
Corrodes and catalyzes – surface Flaws
Help Epitaxial Growth to fix adsorptive claws.
I wish more of today’s writers, novelists, and poets felt the same way that Updike felt about science. He’ll be missed.