Apple Blossom Journey: A Path to Feminizing Physics

sky stegall's picture

I haven't written a poem (where anyone could read it) in almost ten years. I was, therefore, a little afraid because I had volunteered to write poetry for this paper assignment. I tried several different things, and they were all pretty crummy. Words that sounded great and made sense in my head looked silly on paper and came out wrong when I read them back to myself. I think I was forcing meaning, rather than naturally making it or just letting it happen. Then I remembered the joke I'd made in class on Wednesday - that a single haiku wouldn't exactly equate to five pages of writing.

That was, perhaps, untrue. I also remembered what Anne had said in reply, that a haiku filled with words of the right weight could in that sense perfectly fit the bill. All this remembering happened as I was walking across campus, and simultaneously thinking about how I'm really going to miss the weeping cherry trees when I graduate.

Cherry blossoms fall
Gently back to their mother
Female gravity

Well, how's that? Does it weigh enough? Somehow it didn't feel right (how much of writing is feeling, and how much thinking? I mean, if we're bodied individuals and not just floating intellectualism...) and I decided to play with it. The first thing that occurred to me was that it would be more potent for this case to speak of apple blossoms, since - although it was the cherry trees that inspired me - it was allegedly an apple that inspired Sir Isaac Newton.

I had written this short poem down in a little notebook I carry, since I was headed off on the bus to a class at Haverford and knew that I wouldn't remember it on my own. So I reopened my notebook and wrote, below the first one, a slightly different version, playing with some more of the words.

Apple blossoms drift
Gently down to their mother
Female gravity

Still not quite right. I liked the apple - makes me think simultaneously of Sir Newton and Eve, since it was her famous fruit, too, and I learned both their stories in early childhood. "Drift" wasn't right, though, as it implied a purposelessness I couldn't identify with. "Fall" was better, it seemed, both because of the Eve reference and because fall is, of course, the season of harvest, which feels traditionally feminine to me. I guess I'm thinking of all those Earth-Mother goddess types and the classical image of my own zodiac sign, Virgo, as a woman holding a sheaf of grain or wheat.

I also was now no longer sure about "gently." Most of them women I know I would not describe as gentle, although I'm aware it's a stereotype of women. I think "graceful" is more appropriate, both for the motion of the flowers and for the women I know. I also like this word because it feels closer in meaning to "elegant," which (while not the best description of homey, comfortable apply blossoms, I think) is a term we often use in physics to describe mathematics... and which we use in the rest of the world to describe women.
Apple blossoms fall
Graceful down to their mother...

Now I'm starting to have issues with "down" and "mother," since I don't want to associate this feminine motion with a lowering or moving down (hierarchy?), and "gravity" may have done that already, and I'm intensely aware of the masculine critique that a "feminizing" of physics might lose some of the mathematical rigor for which physics is famous. I don't want to sound too... well, too much like a math-phobic hippie, so to speak, a stereotype I've also fought. Anyway, thinking about the physicist's use of "elegant" made me want to use something distinctively mathematical in this poem, and since I know gravity makes objects move in interesting parabolic shapes, I rewrite the second line.

Apple blossoms fall
Graceful wind parabolas
Female gravity

To be honest I got the word "wind" just by needing one more syllable for that line... but I'm starting to really like it, because it means both the breeze pushing the blossoms, which leads to a more complex motion, and because it could indicate that motion itself, in a spiral, winding kind of way. In fact, I'll keep it because of that dualism on the page, because any empirical data can and must be interpreted from more than one perspective for understanding. Plus, of course, the complexity of motion influenced by both gravity and friction from wind implies a more holistic understanding of motion - no one-dimensional ball-dropping here!

I like parabolas here - they're one of the most simple and familiar non-linear functions in math, and one of the first things one learns in any algebra or pre-calculus math class, so they're very accessible, but since they do really describe the motion of an object influenced by gravity, they are also very important to classical mechanics. They are, in that way, both fundamental and far-reaching.

Now that last line is beginning to bother me. It's too confining - for a poem that touches on Newton and Eve, simplicity (haiku) and complexity (holistic motion), duplicity of meaning in a single word, and the vast functionality of a single function (math function, that is, the parabola), I don't want to limit myself to gravity. Let's try physics, with a syllable change.

Apple blossoms fall
Graceful wind parabolas
Feminine physics

I like that better. The more I read it, the more I dwell on it, the more I see in it. Apples for Isaac and Eve, for knowledge either given mysteriously (by God?) or taken, maybe without knowing the consequences but daring to ask anyway. Blossoms for femininity - fragile perhaps, beautiful certainly, and terribly useful (reproduction, of course). Fall for Eve's fall, for autumn, maybe for the descent of physics from the top of that pyramid we deny so strongly, falling to a level where everyone can be equal.

Grace is a woman's name, graceful a feminine adjective. "Full of grace," perhaps another gift from God, perhaps just the inner peace that comes with communing with the universe as we see it, as we can understand and interact with it. Wind blows through those blossoms, which then wind their way to the earth, interacting and exchanging energy with the tiniest molecules of air. Beautiful parabolas erase the classic classroom examples of cannonballs and football players and replacing it with something more primal, perhaps more real, that our weapons and games.

Feminine physics. More complex, more holistic, more useful, more beautiful, more accessible than the kind of elite priesthood we have all encountered before. I really thought about simply submitting my final haiku as my paper, and while each of you might have read it through and through and through and thought about it and come to a unique, deep, rich understanding of it's phenomenological meaning (because every words is a phenomenon in our agential perception, right?), but that would have also been shutting you our of my process. It would have set me apart as The Author, another priesthood just as cut off from the world as physics can be. So I asked you to join me on my apple blossom journey, and add my meaning to your own to create a deeper, richer, wider understanding than I, or any Author, could come up with alone.

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