John Updike, a virtuosic writer of fiction, verse, essays and criticism, died yesterday from lung cancer at the age of 76. The prolific Pulitzer Prize–winning author of more than 60 books was born in Reading, Pa., and raised in the nearby former farming community of Shillington, which he would immortalize in a 1984 article that he penned for The New Yorker. At the time of his death, he lived in Beverly Farms, Mass., an oceanfront community some 20 miles north of Boston.
Updike was most noted for his middle-class American suburban characters. "It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules," he said in an interview published in Life magazine in 1966. The one-time New Yorker staff writer was perhaps best known for his four quirky "Rabbit" books (Rabbit Run, Rabbit Redux, Rabbit is Rich, and Rabbit at Rest) about the travails of aging ex-high school basketball star Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. Updike racked up just about every writing award on Earth, including two Pulitzers for Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest. (He also once wrote a poem for Scientific American.)
What some may not know about the late author is that he was also deeply challenged by the extremes of faith and science. Or—perhaps to the consternation of those who position themselves at the poles of those extremes—the science in faith and the faith in science.
First published in the December 17, 1960 issue of The New Yorker, John Updike's poem "Cosmic Gall" tackled the then big question of the fantastically small: neutrinos.
"I remember the times when I was wrestling with these issues that I would feel crushed. I was crushed by the purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe," Updike told the Associated Press in 2006. "I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and woman spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can't quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, 'This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.'"
Neutrinos they are very small.
They have no charge and have no mass
And do not interact at all.
The earth is just a silly ball
To them, through which they simply pass,
Like dustmaids down a drafty hall
Or photons through a sheet of glass.
They snub the most exquisite gas,
Ignore the most substantial wall,
Cold-shoulder steel and sounding brass,
Insult the stallion in his stall,
And, scorning barriers of class,
Infiltrate you and me! Like tall
And painless guillotines, they fall
Down through our heads into the grass.
At night, they enter at Nepal
And pierce the lover and his lass
From underneath the bed—you call
It wonderful; I call it crass.
(From Telephone Poles and Other Poems. Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.)
Composed only several years after Clyde L. Cowan and Frederick Reines's 1956 neutrino experiment, Updike’s medium was part of its message; its simple, yet deliberately poorly reasoned AB-style rhyme scheme,even mirrors the neutrons (A) and positrons (B) thought to be detected by Cowan and Reines. We now know that both the proposed and the observed particles were antineutrinos. And we also know that neutrinos do, in fact, have mass.
The truth here is in whether—be it in words or numbers—language offers a kind of sanctuary for us to work through what we are thinking and feeling in time. Toward the close of Updike's poem when the neutrinos "enter at Nepal / And pierce the lover and his lass / From underneath the bed," the poem is dramatizing a quantum effect.
It reminds us that these big questions about small things—and vice versa—remain open. Truly, had we but world enough and time, we could map the way Heraclitus anticipates Einstein's theory that energy is the essence of matter with: "All things change to fire, / and fire exhausted / falls back into things."
Talk about "spooky action at a distance." Verse, derived from the Latin for "turning," turns short of the right hand margin, and the effect is most powerful in the lines "The earth is just a silly ball / To them…." The Two Cultures of science and the humanities, as C. P. Snow described in 1959, may be repulsive forces, but they are as entangled as the lines above. The line break, the turn, even the spin if you will, identifies a point that Updike is making: that what we feel about fact or fiction of material reality is crucial to any understanding. The enjambment of those lines makes his position quietly known. That he does not think "the earth is just a silly ball" and that "them" could be neutrinos or a figment of the imagination of the devotees of science.
If Adam's task in Eden was to name things, then, for Updike, language itself was part of the material dilemma of what it is: "The miracle of turning inklings into thoughts and thoughts into words and words into metal and print and ink never palls for me."
Photo of John Updike receiving the Medal of Arts from Pres. George H. W. Bush