A Tumbler of Island Water

The Nobel poet Derek Walcott died last month. He wrote about the Caribbean, its harsh legacy of colonialism. In particular, they considered his island of St. Lucia, its opulent vegetation, the white beaches and its tangled multicultural heritages.

His 1962 collection “In a Green Night” included the poem “Islands”:

I seek,
As climate seeks its style, to write
Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight,
Cold as the curled wave, ordinary
As a tumbler of island water.

In 1990, he told The Economist: “The sea is always present. It’s always visible. All the roads lead to it. I consider the sound of the sea to be part of my body. And if you say in patois, ‘The boats are coming back,’ the beat of that line, its metrical space, has to do with the sound and rhythm of the sea itself.”


Walcott was also an accomplished watercolorist and illustrated many of his books:.


His 2004 work, “The Prodigal”, had a distinctly elegiac undercurrent and offered a glimpse of the author’s restless travels to Italy, Colombia, France and Mexico.

“Prodigal, what were your wanderings about?”

“The smoke of homecoming, the smoke of departure.”

“There can be virtues in deprivation.”

“For every poet, it is always morning in the world. History is a forgotten, insomniac night. History and elemental awe are always our early beginning, because the fate of poetry is to fall in love with the world, in spite of History.”

Smell of Rain

Petrichor is the earthy fragrance produced when rain falls on soil or stone after a long period of warm, dry weather. It comes from the Greek “petra” meaning stone, and “ichor”, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods in Greek mythology.


Petrichor was named by Australian researchers in 1964, who described it as a combination of plant oils and the chemical compound geosmin which are released from the soil when it rains. Geosmin is a bicyclic alcohol with the formula C12H22O, a derivative of decalin.


It was also romanticised by Shakespeare in a sonnet:

Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
But Lust’s effect is tempest after sun.
Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain;
Lust’s winter comes ere summer half be done.
Love surfeits not, Lust like a glutton dies;
Love is all truth, Lust full of forged lies.

In 2015, scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), USA, used high-speed cameras to show how the smell of rain gets into the air. Raindrops trap tiny air bubbles as they hit the ground. The bubbles then shoot upwards through the raindrop and erupt into a fizz, producing extremely fine liquid droplets that stay suspended in the air as aerosols of scent.




The smell of rain is strongest when light rain falls on sandy or clay soils. The speed of the raindrops during heavy rain makes it harder to trap the air bubbles that produce petrichor. Some scientists believe that humans developed a liking for the smell of rain as our ancestors depended on rainy weather for survival.

The MIT high-speed cameras, below, show raindrops landing and the emergence of petrichor aerosols as tiny white flecks.

Petrichor animation. Video by Massachusetts Institute of Technology

More than Meets the Eye

Milton’s Paradise Lost is 350 years old this month.


William Blake, a most brilliant interpreter of Milton, wrote of how “the Eye of Imagination” saw beyond the narrow confines of “single vision”, creating works that outlasted “mortal vegetated Eyes”.

In more than 10,000 lines of blank verse, the poem tells the story of the war for heaven and of man’s expulsion from Eden. a meditation on challenging and longing.

Milton is shown dictating Paradise Lost

The almost blind Milton dictates Paradise Lost to his daughters in an engraving after a painting by M. Munkacsy (Credit: Alamy)

In Paradise Lost, Milton conjures the spirits of blind prophets. He invokes Homer, author of the first great epics in Western literature, and Tiresias, the oracle of Thebes who sees in his mind’s eye what the physical eye cannot. As the philosopher Descartes wrote during Milton’s lifetime, “it is the soul which sees, and not the eye”.

Now, there are many ways to see through blindness. One is by scanning tunnelling microscopy which can give images on an atomic scale.

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One autumn evening in Norfolk, William Cole wrote:

“The atmosphere with humid vapours flow,

And the pale moon displays her lunar bow.”

He felt it necessary to explain with a footnote: “See the Norfolk Chronicle of Nov. 17, 1799”. It was a reference that explained the unusual lunar feature.

In this more recent image, released on 18 October 2016, a moonbow is visible in the night sky above a field in the Coquet Valley in Northumberland, England (Ian Glendinning/AP)

These lunar bows occur when light reflected from the moon (rather than shining directly from the sun) is refracted through mist or rain suspended in the dimming atmosphere.
The German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) showed a moon bow in his Mountain Landscape that now hangs in the Folkwang Museum in Essen (Wikipedia)


Too Much of a Good Thing

Today is William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday.

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Most days, we quote his words:

1. “With bated breath” – The Merchant Of Venice

2. “The be all and end all” – Macbeth

3. “Break the ice” – The Taming Of The Shrew

4. “Dead as a doornail” – Henry VI, Part II

5. “Faint-hearted” – Henry VI, Part I

6. “Wild-goose chase” – Romeo And Juliet

7. “Laugh yourself into stitches (in stitches)” – Twelfth Night

8. “Zany” – Love’s Labour’s Lost

9. “I will wear my heart upon my sleeve” – Othello

10. “What’s done, is done” – Macbeth

11. “At one fell swoop” – Macbeth

12. “Though this be madness, yet there is method in it (There’s method in my madness)” – Hamlet

13. “Spotless reputation” – Richard II

14. “Laughing-stock” – The Merry Wives Of Windsor

15. “Eaten out of house and home” – Henry IV, Part 2

16. “Fair play” – The Tempest/King John/Troilus And Cressida

17. “In a pickle” – The Tempest

18. “Send him packing” – Henry IV, Part 1

19. “Too much of a good thing” – As You Like It



Like most animals, the limpet (marine mollusc species of the genus Patella) has teeth and a tongue as part of the mouth:

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The tongue with its tiny teeth scrapes food off rocks and into the mouth, and it often swallows particles of rock in the process. The teeth are made of a mineral-protein composite, which has recently been tested in the laboratory.

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In the latest edition of Royal Society Interface, A Barber reports that limpets’ teeth consist of the strongest biological material ever tested. He suggests that the secret to the material’s strength is the thinness of its tightly packed mineral fibres – a discovery that could help improve the man-made composites used to build aircraft, cars and boats, as well as dental fillings.

In 1831, Sarah Hoare wrote: Poems on Conchology and Botany, strong statements of Victorian confidence give a different spin on the limpet’s adhesive strength:

Patella to the rock adheres,

Not of the raging tempest fears

The most tremendous power;

And though assail’d on every side,

Close to the guardian will abide,

Her strength, her fortress, and her pride,

Her never failing tower.

Greek Tragedy

In Greece there is trouble in the life scientific as well as in the body politic and it shows up in the muse of Delphi.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus once likened

Aeschylus’ poetry to this Cyclopean

wall beneath Apollo’s temple before us,

this wall I always gaze on whenever in Delphi,

blocks shaped like continents pre-early Jurassic

where capers cascade down landlocked Pangea,

polygonal Gondwanaland, in tasselly swathes.

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At first I thought this new poem, Polygon, by Tony Harrison (of v fame), filling two whole pages of the current London Review of Books, might bring them together in the tradition of Byron.

During a visit to Delphi, Tony Harrison sees ‘blocks shaped like continents’, capers that ‘cascade down landlocked Pangea’, and shapes like ‘a polygonal Gondwanaland hanging in tasselly swathes’.

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He drinks the water from the spring of Castalia and treads more polygonal blocks of marble.

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He sees clouds ‘evolve and become extinct’, just some of the events over the past 542 million years:

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and there is tragedy in the ‘heat around cicadas’.

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He cooks with a handful of the capers gathered from Gondwanaland.

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Here are conflicts between fire and water, earth and air: components of nature close to us all. But where are the links for this tectonic world? To me, Harrison fails to bring that art and science together.