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John Updike in Scientific American: The Dance of the Solids

In stanzas associated with allegory the actual atomic structures of solids unfolds. Metals, Ceramics and Polymers. The conduction of heat, electricity and light through solids. Solidity emerges as being intricate, giddy, playful


Editor's note: These verses were composed after John Updike had read the September 1967 issue of Scientific American, which was devoted to materials. They appeared in his book Midpoint and Other Poems, and are reproduced with the generous permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. We are posting it to mark Updike's death today at the age of 76.

All things are Atoms: Earth and Water, Air
And Fire, all, Democritus foretold.
Swiss Paracelsus, in's alchemic lair,
Saw Sulfur, Salt, and Mercury unfold
Amid Mellennial hopes of faking Gold.
Lavoisier dethroned Phlogiston; hen
Molecular Analysis made bold
Forays into the gases: Hydrogen
Stood naked in the dazzled sight of Learned Men.

The Solid State, however, kept its grains
Of Microstructure coarsely veiled until
X-ray diffraction pierced the Crystal Planes
That roofed the giddy Dance, the taut Quadrille
Where Silicon and Carbon Atoms will
Like Valencies, four-figured, hand in hand
With common Ions and Rare Earths to fill
The lattices of Matter, Glass or Sand,
With tiny Excitations, quantitatively grand.

The Metals lustrous Monarchs of the Cave,
Are ductile and conductive and opaque
Because each Atom generously gave
Its own Electrons to a mutual Stake,
A Pool that acts as Bond. The Ions take
The stacking shapes of Spheres, and slip and
When pressed or dented; thusly Metals make
A better Paper Clip than a Window,
Are vulnerable to Shear, and heated, brightly glow. 

Ceramic, muddy Queen of human Arts,
First served as simple Stone. Feldspar supplied
Crude Clay; and Rubies, Porcelain, and Quartz
Came each to light. Aluminum Oxide
Is typical ¬– a Metal is allied
With Oxygen ionically; no free
Electrons form a lubricating tide,
Hence, Empresslike, Ceramics tend to be
Resistant, porous, brittle, and refractory.

Prince Glass, Ceramic's son, though crystal-clear
Is no wise crystalline. The fond Voyeur
And Narcissist alike devoutly peer
Into Disorder, the Disorderer
Being Covalent Bondings that prefer
Prolonged Viscosity and spread loose nets
Photons slip through. The average Polymer
Enjoys a Glassy state, but cools, forgets
To slump, and clouds in closely patterned Minutes

The Polymers, those giant Molecules,
Like Starch and Polyoxymethylene,
Flesh out, as protein serfs and plastic fools,
The Kingdom with Life's Stuff. Our tme has seen
The synthesis of Polyisoprene
And many cross-linked Helixes unknown
To Robert Hooke; but each primordial Bean
Knew Cellulose by heart: Nature alone
Of Collagen and Apatite compounded Bone.



What happens in these Lattices when Heat
Transports Vibrations through a solid mass?
T = 3Nk is much too neat;
A rigid Crystal's not a fluid Gas.
Debye in 1912 proposed Elas-
Tic Waves called phonons which obey Max Planck's
Great Quantum Law. Although amorphous Glass,
Umklapp Switchbacks, and Isotopes play pranks
Upon his Formulae, Debye deserved warm Thanks.

Electroconductivity depends
On Free Electrons: in Germanium
A touch of Arsenic liberates; in blends
Like Nickel Oxide, Ohms thwart Current. From
Pure Copper threads to wads of Chewing Gum
Resistance varies hugely. Cold and Light
As well as "doping" modify the sum
Of Fermi Levels, Ion scatter, site
Proximity, and other factors recondite.

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.

While Sunlight, Newton saw, is not so pure;
A Spectrum bared the Rainbow to his view.
Each Element absorbs its signature:
Go add a negative Electron to
Potassium Chloride; it turns deep blue,
As Chromium incarnadines Sapphire.
Wavelengths, absorbed, are reemitted through
Fluorescence, Phosphorescence, and the higher
Intensities that deadly Laser Beams require.

Magnetic Atoms, such as Iron, keep
Unpaired Electrons in their middle shell,
Each one a spinning Magnet that would leap
The Bloch Walls whereat antiparallel
Domains converge. Diffuse Material
Becomes Magnetic when another Field
Aligns domains like Seaweed in a swell.
How nicely microscopic forces yield,
In Units growing Visible, the World we wield!

 

*Note: (1/29/09): This poem was originally published without last two lines of the first stanza. Apologies to John Updike, and thanks to Bongobimbo for pointing out the omission.

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