After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics (Rick)

I think in class we already addressed quite some of the details that are hidden, especially in the middle section, in this poem. There are two main elements that struck me though, to which I want to give some more attention in this short review. The first is that I feel some contraction between the first paragraph and the last one. Second I do not believe that the words ‘Thank God’ are only colloquial, but rather have specific meaning.

            Let me start with the paradox this poem essentially is. This text praises the work of modern science by stating in the first paragraph that ‘If all top physicist knows [a]bout the Truth be true, … We have a better time [t]han the Greater Nebulae do, [o]r the atoms in our brains.’ But it is also critical in the last two paragraphs where it is questioned whether the pursuit of knowledge is a wise thing to do.

            One might argue that the positivist attitude in the first paragraph has a cynical intonation, but since the author starts to explain why he thinks human beings are better of in the next two paragraphs he seems to have faith in science. The author shows that he understands what science is telling and at first does not seem to see much harm in that, as a matter of fact, the second and third paragraph show a fascination for what science has taught us. But from the third, and especially the fourth, paragraph he starts to really question whether we want to know this, and whether it is a wise thing to keep on producing knowledge about issues that are actually outside the scope of a normal human being’s perception. There the positivistic outlook on science changes completely and the author becomes critical towards the need for this knowledge production (and seems to question its relevance).

            The second element I considered worth addressing here was where the author writes the words ‘Thank God’, in the third paragraph of the poem. ‘Thank God’ can be just a colloquial expression, rather meaningless to many people who regularly use it, but in this case I expect it was a deliberate choice. It is known that W.H. Auden was not only a religious man, but he consciously struggled with the concept of religion and his own view on, and practice of, Christianity. It can therefore be expected that a poem so consciously aware of religion would not use the world God without deeper meaning.

            Since Auden was Christian it can also be expected that he was a creationist, almost by definition making him a skeptic of science since science generally preaches evolution. Although it is also perfectly possible for (Christian) religion to embrace modern science, the context of his poem makes it rather likely that the Auden is on the side of creationism here. The single main argument I have for this is that the author talks first about the smallest building-bricks that make our universe, and about their seemingly unregulated and destructive behaviour, but then goes on to, in my view, literally thank God for creating human beings as a solid creature which has enough mass not to fall apart.

            Finally Auden’s claim towards the end of the poem that there might be a limit to what we should aspire to learn about nature, might also have a relation to his religious viewpoint. He might have in mind the idea that the world is made by a creator and that the there is limit to how much humans should try to find out about the work of this creator.

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