Black Earth Into Yellow Crocus

Perhaps my favourite joke of all time is actually an anecdote that I read in the wonderful book Thirty Years that Shook Physics, by George Gamow. The book is available in an inexpensive Dover edition, and would make a fine complement to a course textbook in modern physics, which amounts to introductory quantum mechanics. Gamow lived through the excitement of the early development of quantum mechanics and participated in its development. He knew all the major figures and worked with many of them. Besides providing an engaging and clear description of the new discoveries in quantum mechanics, in historical context, Gamow sprinkles his story with delightful and humorous anecdotes about the famous physicists he rubbed shoulders with. To top it all off, the book is illustrated with the author’s own charming line drawings, and with photographs taken by him.

Don’t miss the hilarious story of Gamow speaking French with Louis de Broglie (“… Monsieur le Duc de Broglie …”), and how Bohr was found by the police after dark climbing up the second story of the national bank in Copenhagen. Worth the price of admission and more!

But here’s the anecdote that I alluded to in the first sentence, which I am taking from memory (not a direct quote from Gamow’s book):

Bohr had a summer house in Tisvilde. He would invite scientific visitors to the house for joint work. Taking breaks from work, Bohr would pull weeds out of his lawn by hand.

On Rosenfeld’s first visit to Bohr’s summer house, he was surprised to notice a horseshoe nailed over the doorway. “Bohr, I can’t believe that a man of science would believe in that old superstition!” Bohr replied, “Of course I don’t believe in it!” Then he added with a smile, “But you know, they say it brings you good luck even if you don’t believe in it!”

The Bohr anecdote highlights for me a critical question for scientifically-minded people, of which I count myself as one: Is it possible to a scientist and still be mystical/spiritual/religious? Quite a few scientists seem to manage this, so the answer is obviously yes, but I’m interested in exploring the question a little more deeply. Is it necessary to be consistent in order to live a good life? Is it possible (useful? desirable? destructive?) to “compartmentalize” your scientific self from your mystical self? Is a mystical/spiritual/religious life fundamentally inconsistent with a scientific approach to the world?

I believe these are all questions worth meditating upon as we travel through our lives.

Which brings us to the title of today’s post, which refers to Piet Hein. Hein was able to live a very creative life, combining science and art in inventive ways. He was also a poet; as a member of the Danish underground, he inspired his fellow Danes during WWII with a daily “gruk” published pseudonymously in the national newspaper. Here is one of my favourite Hein gruks:

We glibly speak of nature’s laws

but do things have a natural cause?

Black earth into yellow crocus

is undiluted hocus pocus.

Hein’s gruk makes the same point as Bohr’s anecdote, one with poetry the other with humour.

The striving to understand the world scientifically helps us appreciate the world’s beauty … but there is always another mystery looming on the horizon. The more we understand scientifically, the more we appreciate the depth of the world’s mysteries. Humbling, isn’t it?

(This post first appeared at my other (now deleted) blog, and was transferred to this blog on 25 January 2021.)