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Poets Online Archive

STEM Science, Technology, Engineering, Math

December 2022 - Issue #304

I worked for a decade at a STEM university. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That doesn't immediately sound very poetic, but poets do write about all those fields at times, and there were poets at the university. 

The first "science" poem I remember reading in a school anthology is "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" by Walt Whitman which is basically an anti-science poem. 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

We have all probably sat through some of those lectures and wanted to walk out and just look up at the sky.

There were metaphysical poets, like Donne and Marvell. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality, the first principles of being, identity and change, space and time, etc. Not physics in the scientific sense but with some science in the conceits of their philosophy.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote a "Sonnet - To Science." Jane Hirshfield went poetic about proteins.  

Sarah Howe writing about the poetry of astrophysics wrote "It’s not a new idea that poets and scientists should talk to one another. During a visit to Florence in 1638, the young John Milton sought out Galileo Galilei. By then a blind old man, Galileo was living under house arrest, confined by the Inquisition for asserting, after his celestial observations, that the Earth revolved around the sun. Years later, old and blind himself, Milton would pay homage—in his epic poem about the origins of our universe, Paradise Lost—to the great astronomer, who makes a cameo appearance with his telescope pointed at the sun’s dark spots."

Howe's poem titled "Relativity" is dedicated to Stephen Hawking and begins:

When we wake up brushed by panic in the dark
our pupils grope for the shape of things we know.

Photons loosed from slits like greyhounds at the track
reveal light’s doubleness in their cast shadows...

In "The Sciences Sing a Lullabye," Albert Goldbarth lets the sciences sing.

Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you're tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now...
Geology says: it will be all right. Slow inch
by inch America is giving itself
to the ocean...
Astronomy says: the sun will rise tomorrow...

All these are model poems for this month's call for submissions, but I chose Nick Flynn's "Cartoon Physics, part 1" as our example on the website in which he plays with physics the way cartoons play with physics.

...that if a man draws a door on a rock
only he can pass through it.
Anyone else who tries
will crash into the rock... 

Cartoon physics teaches us that

that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff
he will not fall

until he notices his mistake.

Physics seems to attract more poets and I had a physics course in college for non-majors that was nicknamed "physics for poets." We were all theoretical physicists in that lecture hall talking about time travel, quantum mechanics, parallel universes, and the physics that interests the writers of stories and makers of films of science-fiction. 

Of course, science doesn't always get it right. I wrote elsewhere about some "wrong science" which can be funny in retrospect and might even be poetic. 

Our prompt this month is science and more specifically the STEM disciplines and even more specifically we'd like to see some play in the poems.  

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


The Law of Conservation of Energy,
Makes it abundantly clear;
Why if you’re around children’s parents,
There’s a phrase you’ll commonly hear:

“I don’t know where they find the energy,
They seem to have countless stores.”
Well, science says they can’t create it,
So they must be siphoning yours.”

Matt Strain


Though you may teeter on the edge of logic
and spatial linguistics while contemplating
the creation of the universe, Fibonacci poems multiply
and when you’re not looking, fractal branches grow on broccoli.

Consider if we were to write or paint by invitation only,
how sad not to express in words or pictures,
a magical spiral, venture into a math sequence
that holds da Vinci’s golden rectangle in its grasp.

Are you an actuary who wishes to photograph a flower blossom,
an architect who secretly writes romances,
a chemist who paints the liquid in a beaker before heating,
a conservationist, who reads a poem by a stream while calculating its volume,

an artist who breaks codes for a cryptologist club,
a dancer, who removes a clock’s innards just to reassemble it?
The majestic blend of art and science will uplift you,
sending you into other dimensions.

Margaret R. Sáraco


I think my uncle wanted a boy
to share his awe of wondrous science.
Birthdays brought biographies of Galileo and Pasteur,
chemistry sets with the potential to amaze.
His eagerness unanswered, my pilot light, unlit.

Junior high introduced us to Vocational Technology.
Woodshop yielded boxy lamps and bruised fingers.
Boys with talent or a parent’s consent
moved on to Automotive, while the rest
returned to the safety of Spanish 2.

We came back from the Summer of Love
to a world where engineers were cool.
They answered Kennedy’s call and even
taught a mechanical flag to ripple irregularly
in the stolid silence of the moon.

In Mr. Walsh’s summer school math class
he failed to inspire as Euclid would:
‘There is no royal road to geometry.’
His chalk arcing over our dopey heads,
exploding against cinderblock and getting our attention.

Rob Friedman


Newton had a theory
that light was a group of particles.
Others thought that it might be a wave.

Light travels in a straight line,
so naturally Isaac thought
of light as extremely small particles
from a source and reflected by objects.

But what about wave-like light phenomena
such as diffraction and interference?
Then again, why do photons fly out of metal
that is exposed to light?
Waves don't explain this photoelectric effect.

My own wave theory
involves the ocean that I surf.
It is made up of very small particles
but they behave like a wave.

I doubt that Albert or Isaac gave this any thought.
Though perhaps Professor Einstein did surf
as a thought experiment.

The Internet tells me that the dual nature of light
as both a particle and a wave has been proved.
From electromagnetics into quantum mechanics,
Einstein believed light is a photon particle
and the flow of photons is a wave.

Matter and energy, waves formed by wind,
earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides
and don't forget those high and low tides
caused by the moon that at night rises
lessening the distance between Earth and Moon.

I am like the waves attracted to the moon
which makes us stronger for a time
and then sends us cresting over into the deep
where waves become particles again.

Lianna Wright/


the physiology of vision,
which is the process by which
human beings actually see,
says we see best what is at the center
of our cone of vision,
the way the focal point in a painting
pulls you in, drawing in the light
to your retina, where your photoreceptors–
all your rods and cones–are hard at work,
the rays of light meeting
and reflecting and refracting,
and diverging and proceeding
as you proceeded, radiant, past me
down the street, so it was more
scientific observation than gawking–
I wasn’t gawking–as I looked at your ass
as your ass moved in that way
it has of moving as you moved
in that way you have down the sidewalk,
my scientific observations
focused on the slender body
of research concerning the question
of how a refulgent ass such as yours
is able to draw in all the light
of the universe.

Paul Hostovsky


On the evening news the same old
scattershot of mass shootings at malls,
supermarkets, churches here & there
around the country; the latest endangered-
forest bird-virus making its global
rounds; random bomb and UFO sightings,
conflagration at the edge of town
caused by a homeless campfire; and
of course glacial melt, out-of-season floods.
and multi-million dollar homes land-
sliding into the ocean – Climate Change?
So it was ho-hum when a remote rancher’s
house BANG burned to the ground.
Arson? Way out there? Then came reports
of a “bright ball of light” falling
to earth – landing right about where
that rancher opened his front door.
Meteorite, many speculated, was to blame.
Now – in spite of successful DART test
to nudge an asteroid off course lest
it threaten our Earth – shall we believe
the heavens are attacking – or maybe
sending us a brilliant but cryptic message?

Taylor Graham


Poets are pathetic compared to scientists.
It’s our ignorance that humiliates us.
All we know about mathematics is
That it’s called “maths” in England,
Which might mean that mathematics is plural.
Does that mean that physics is plural too?
What are physics anyway?
Is there a poet on earth who has a clue
What physics, especially quantum physics, is or are?
And how about algorithms?
They seem to be some sort of evil menace,
Like Grendel in Beowulf,
Sowing discord and chaos just for fun.
Poets are helpless in the face of such darkness.
And the few things we can brag about don’t count for anything.
So what if a lot of poets have read every word Shakespeare ever wrote
And understood most of it.
So what if we know what synecdoche is
And can even include an example in a poem.
“Get your butt over here,” let’s face it, won’t be remembered,
And even a well-crafted sonnet never saved a life—not really.
Madame Curie did more for France than Rimbaud ever could,
And Jonas Salk changed the world, even if he probably
Didn’t know how to write a haiku.
We poets should just face the truth and surrender—
Scientists took us to the moon,
Cured diseases, invented nuclear energy and the internet,
Although there might be some unintended consequences
From those last two breakthroughs,
But still, scientists are superior to poets in every way.
All we can do is stab you through the heart until tears overwhelm you,
Unlock the secret door to all your longings
And guide you through the twilight for a glimpse of the divine.

Rose Anna Higashi


My father took me
to hear Hawking lecture
when I was 16,
back when computers were nascent
and the program that presented his speech
was poor. Still even then I understood
he was speaking about black holes
and black body radiation.

Hawking once said to look up at the stars
and not down at your feet.

My Erdős number—four—
same as Hawking’s—
an attribute I garnered
in 1984
even before my doctorate
before the string of grants
most rejected
before the invitation
to the National Science Foundation
to sit on a review panel
(you sit here you token woman
and keep your mouth zipped)
where the other panelists,
four of them
(and there’s that number again)
all men
wanted to fund
only the scientific equivalent
of the rich and famous
or their friends—
no concern for the under-
or the fry smaller than them—
this was before social media
before crowd-funding
when the NSF or the military
were almost the only funding options
in the realm of publish or perish—
so on this panel
quietly zipped
I wanted to slip back
onto the couch
at my DC hotel but didn’t—
only after so many years
of relegation to staring
at the lowly state of my feet
did I understand
this hadn’t been my place
or maybe it wasn’t my time,
but since, I realized
I had achieved something
not many others had—
my Erdős number
relatively low
and named for Erdős
who would have termed me dead
for having stopped my practice,
Erdős who,
before couch-surfing was a thing,
couch-surfed most of his life
in exchange for a co-write
with a host, and Erdős,
who’d sit down to a meal
while his laundry was spinning
would conjecture
in banter
until a proof
was forthcoming.

Carla Schwartz


The class on STEM was offered at the "Y"
On loan Chromebooks for participants
Six girls, a few years shy of puberty
My granddaughter, in the mix, reluctantly

It was our twice a week adventure
I'd pick her up right after school
Sit through the lessons patiently
So we could later talk of what she’d learned

Science and technology, engineering and mathematics
All in her family's genes: Uncles, aunts, grandparents
Cousins she adores - involved in these heady disciplines
Some, even in all four

Good for her to be exposed, I thought
Regardless of whatever path she ultimately chose
How sad it would have been, if I had never been exposed
To poetry, by my High School English teacher, Mrs. Holleran

After class, we’d sometimes stop for ice cream
I’d ask her what she thought about the class
She’d humor me with little observations
Then make it clear that what she really cared about was Art

I asked myself, if I had been mistaken
To goad her into taking such an unfamiliar class
Perhaps, I should accept the proposition
That STEM and Art are incompatible, at best

My wife, however, disagrees — sees Art and STEM
As naturally connected: Perspective, a function of mathematics,
LEGOs, toys for future engineers, technology, essentially a toolbox,
Science, just another form of Art

Turns out, she’s not alone in this belief
Some claim STEM, in its current form, is incomplete
Favor adding Art to STEM — a fifth component,
Converting STEM to STEAM — Now, THAT ... would be some feat

Frank Kelly


Nobody knows exactly what it is.
A fatal attraction? A warp in time?
A cosmic rubber band keeping
atoms from dissipating in the void?

The weakest of the forces, it keeps all
in thrall, binding planets to their stars,
causing tides in seas, curving spacetime,
keeping feet planted firmly on earth.

It’s centripetal, pulling matter close
together into ever tighter balls
as black holes form, dense cloaca, gorgons
that eat their own in a Grimm fairy tale.

Extreme events may disturb it, sending
ripples racing through space in waves, like a
large stone thrown in a quiet pond, or a
web dancing with the struggles of a fly.

Yet we can defy it for a time twixt
earth and moon, floating like blossoms on
quiet air, suspended in the void of space
like ballerinas at the peak of their jumps.

How to square it with sub-atomic forces,
make Einstein sit with Bohr (one law to rule
them all) is the current quest of physics,
spawning theories even Alice would shun.

And does dark matter, with its own slight tug,
keep all we see from flying apart like
ants from a disturbed mound, an unseen host
keeping all things in quiet harmony?

And yet the universe expands by some
unknown force, trumping gravity’s pull,
pulling galaxies apart, leaving naught
but stormy islands in an empty sea.

Is this enigma, so familiar yet
so strange (like Novalis’ insight), the fact
and beauty of existence, the angle
of repose at the heart of all that is?

Rob Miller