After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics

There is a certain sense of curiosity that forms the premise of WH Auden’s ‘After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics’. Curiosity that makes the poet not only, engage with modern physics but also makes him personify atoms and Greater Nebulae and explore their lifeworlds. In this way, the theme seems a predecessor to Italo Calvino’s ‘Cosmicomics’ published in 1965. Though it is difficult to say if Calvino had known Auden’s work, but in ‘Cosmicomics’, Calvino shows a similar engagement with scientific facts and builds imaginary stories around them.

Auden is exploring the idea wherein if one does assume that atoms and the nebulae could emote in a manner similar to humans, how the conception of social constructs such as marriage, identity and home would be considerable difficult to conceive and live with. He explores the humanness of our lives in an atomic world that moves at a speed of ‘thousands of miles per sec’, within Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and the Big Bang Theory.

The poet believes that the institution of marriage couldn’t possibly work in an environment where the speed of one’s movement, would make a lover’s kiss ‘either not be felt’ or it would ‘break the loved one’s neck’. In a certain way, Auden questions the possibility of expression of love in an atomic world.

Auden uses the uncertainty principle to explain how the ability to see one’s face in the mirror is essential to one’s conception of self. Using himself as an example of an ‘ageing suitor’ of human life, he uses his face as a way of perceiving his self. He thanks God to be able to see his face being ‘altogether there’, instead of being ‘partly somewhere else’. Identity is essential to the emotional conception of human life. Humanity cannot possibly exist with a fragmented notion of self and the human face is the epitome of identity. In the uncertain world of atoms where physical existence in a space cannot be deterministically specified, identity loses its defining characteristic of coherence in space.

Ultimately, Auden uses the fundamental characteristics of a space that humans perceive as ‘Home’, to explain how it is inconceivable for Nebulae to have a home. Home in its traditional definition is an enclosed space which is geographically constant in its location. If the universe is ever-expanding, then the ‘home’ for the Greater Nebulae cannot be envisioned as an enclosed space. This space would keep expanding losing its human conception of ‘home’.

Auden associates the knowledge of the world of atoms and the greater nebulae to the human pursuit of science. He concludes from what he knows about these worlds that humans have ‘a better time’ than both the atoms and the greater nebulae. From the point of view of this ‘better’ position, he questions the need for the quest of knowledge about the world of atoms and nebulae. He wonders if one could know the purpose of this pursuit of knowledge before being engaged in it, so that one can make a conscious choice about whether this knowledge should be pursued or not.

In the final set of lines, Auden discusses the implications of making this choice. Assuming that one does make the choice of pursuing this knowledge, he wonders if the magnitude of the implications would be a ‘creature who comes in a median size;’ a balance between the benefits and the problems that acquisition of this knowledge would bring with it. He also realizes that within the process of making this choice, we are innately politicizing Nature. Treating Nature and the knowledge it holds as a commodity which needs to be extracted, makes it a politically debatable issue. Within this realization, he makes his final comment on the pursuit of knowledge. He believes that the answer to the question of whether this pursuit of knowledge ‘be altogether wise is something [that] we shall learn’ as we encounter the implications in the future.

Posted by: Ranjit Singh | I6005471

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