Of Quarks, Quasars, and Other Quirks: Quizzical Poems for the Supersonic Age

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An illustration to my post about the book Of Quarks, Quasars, and Other Quirks: Quizzical Poems for the Supersonic Age. Illustration done by my sons.

Of Quarks, Quasars, and Other Quirks: Quizzical Poems for the Supersonic Age is a neat book of poems for children. It was published in 1977 and includes poems dating back to 1925. The poems are skeptical of progress and the future, and yet the future they speak of seems quaintly past. For example: the 16 year old “telephone Queen” who uses her parents phone because using her own might prevent her from getting calls on it obviously doesn’t have call waiting.There are poems skeptical of the “all-electric castle” that can be defiled by an “errant fuse.” Other poems scoff at the isolation caused by the television or the elevator without the elevator man. One mocks how wormy apples receive a higher price for being organic. Several regret the environmental damage while others express fear of the atomic bomb.

To smash the simple atom

All mankind was intent.

Now any day

The atom may

Return the compliment.

(by Ethel Jacobson)

A number of poems mock the language of science and math. For example, the last verse of the poem “Scientific Proof” by J. W. Foley includes:

If we amplify the Arctic breeze

By logarithmic signs,

And run through the isosceles

Imaginary lines,

We find that twice the half of one

Is equal to the whole.

Which, when the calculus is done,

Quite demonstrates the Pole.

It also gives its length and breadth

And what’s the price of coal.

I find it fascinating to check the dates of the different poems. “Astronaut’s Choice” which suggests that the efforts to bring astronauts back to earth might be misguided – given the problems here the Astronauts might prefer to settle elsewhere – was published in 1961, the same year John F. Kennedy announced national goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

One mockery of the poem Jabberwocky, “Plane Geometry” by Emma Rounds was first published in 1925. (“‘Twas Euclid, and the theorem pi / Did plane and solid in the text;”) Another “Jabber-whackey” by Isabelle Di Caprio was first published in Mad Magazine in 1963 (“‘Twas Brillo, and the G. E. Stove / Did Procter-Gamble in the Glade;”). Another poem connects Lewis Carroll’s Bandersnatch with the washing machine.

There are other literary connections too, with a poem about the Wizard of Oz and another poem subtitled “As Emily Dickinson Might React to It.” Alas, I don’t know Emily Dickinson’s poems enough to understand the connection!

This is the age

Of the half-read page.

And the quick has

And the mad dash.

So begins the poem “Time of the Mad Atom” by Virginia Brasier. Is there comfort to be found in the idea that in 1949 people were worried that humans weren’t reading the whole page? Now we have the internet and some will bemoan the loss of books while others celebrate the kindle and the abundance of written word in other forms. There’s always worries, always joys.

More than anything, poems from the past looking at the modern age bring up the question of where we are now. Do we like how things are turning out? What aspects of modernity would we keep and which would we turn aside? If we look back at a time when there was hopes for a space age and fears of nuclear destruction, we can rejoice that the world has not blown itself up but still mourn that we don’t live in a Jetson’s like futuristic world. Alternatively we can look at the automatic tellers at grocery stores and gas stations and say, where is the human contact? In so many contexts humans have made themselves obsolete!

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