Of Poetry, Life, and Computers

Poetry may be found in the unlikeliest of places. A professor of mine once recounted to us of walking home one day, lost in his thoughts on abstract mathematics. Suddenly, he broke from his thoughts  and stared at a nearby tree. For a brief moment, within the shape and structure of the tree he saw the physical presence of these abstract objects, second-rank tensors, with which his mind had been grappling.

While it is common for emotions of joy or suffering to inspire poetic writing, it may also be true that careful attention to minutae can lead one to poetic creation. A discussion of the role of creativity, or in essence, the act of poetic creation, within scientific discovery is not one for which I’m currently prepared. Suffice it to say that the transition from a carefully collected set of facts to a general scientific theory does not rest on pure deduction. Indeed, there is an essential step in the process which remains a mystery, and which is labeled as induction, so that having labeled it we may give the pretense of understanding the process. But, we may as well call it the act of creating poetry, for such creation defies logical explanation, at present. There are many examples throughout science, Einstein being famous for such acts of creation, in which it is not even clear that the requisite collection of facts played much role. Another example is the analysis of symmetries in the properties of basic particles of matter, which physicist Murray Gell-Mann fancifully dubbed the eightfold way, and which led to the discovery of sub-nuclear particles called quarks [1], the name of which was taken in part from a line in James Joyce’s novel, Finnegan’s Wake.

I find poetry even in a computer program. Below is a fragment of a computer program of Conway’s Game of Life,

: Creation  ( — )  Void Voice Paradise ;

: Goes-On  ( — )
BEGIN  Everything Passes
Dreams Action Meditation
Escape = UNTIL ;

: Life  ( — )  Creation Goes-On ;

The above lines are actual instructions to a computer. The author of this particular program, Leo Wong, has organized the instructions and given labels to them in a suggestive way. When executed, this program shows strange and intricate patterns which change over time. Even self-replicating patterns can emerge from the very simple rules by which the patterns transform themselves. In fact, mathematicians have proven that Conway’s Game of Life can carry out any mathematical calculation, … if we can frame the problem in proper terms.

In the science fiction movie, 2001, A Space Odyssey, the spaceship Discovery’s computer, HAL, is “intelligent”. At least it would likely pass the test of artificial intelligence, known as the Turing test, devised by mathematician Alan Turing. But the instructions it has been given to hide the nature of the mission from the ship’s active crew place it in conflict with its underlying design as a system for providing very accurate information to humans. HAL develops a sort of neurosis and attempts to resolve its crisis by killing off the ship’s crew. Astronaut David Bowman, on a rescue mission outside the ship, is shut out and not permitted to re-enter the ship by HAL. Bowman gets back in the ship through a daring move, and proceeds to shut down the computer, starting with its higher cognitive functions. HAL is aware and afraid of the shut down. It protests the loss of its mind. Near the end, when HAL is left only with its earliest memories and most primitive skills, Bowman empathizes with the computer’s reluctance to end its existence, and asks it to recite a poem which it learned in its infancy.

Krishna Myneni
21 May 2011
Rev. KM22May2011; KM23May2011


  1. Michael Riordan, The Hunting of the Quark, Simon & Schuster, 1987.
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