Saturday, October 19, 2013

Why we need poets -- a Saturday reprise

The other evening the poet Jane Hirshfield referred in a poem to the number of atoms it takes to make a butterfly. Ten to the 24th power, I think she said. I thought I'd check it out.

A typical butterfly might weigh about half a gram. The exact ratio of elements I don't know, but mostly hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. Let's assume an atomic weight of ten for a typical atom; that is, an atom with ten nuclear particles (Hydrogen=1, carbon= 12, oxygen=16, and so on). A proton or neutron has a weight of about 1.6 X 10-24 grams. About 3 X 1022 atoms in a butterfly.

If I'm remembering Hirshfield's reference correctly (and I may not be), we are off by one or two orders of magnitude. No matter. It's a very big number. You want to make a butterfly? You will need 30,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. And every one in exactly the right place.

Now consider the miracle of metamorphosis.

The caterpillar builds a chrysalis. Wraps itself up in its closet. And there, in the privacy of its self-sufficiency, it rearranges those arrangements of atoms. The caterpillar's six stumpy front feet are turned into the butterfly's slender legs. Four wings develop, as do reproductive organs. Chewing mouthparts become adapted for sucking. A crawling, insatiable, leaf-eater is transformed into a winged, sex-obsessed nectar sipper.

This is why we need poets. It's one thing to count atoms, or draw diagrams of the 22 amino acids, or suss out their sequence on the long chains that are the proteins. Or read out the genome that controls the machinery that turns a creeping leaf-cruncher into a winged angel. But all that biochemistry, as wonderful as it is, leaves the essential mystery intact. The hum. The unceasing hum that is life. The inextinguishable continuity.

Sing, poets. Sing your hosannas.

(This post originally appeared in October 2010.)