'We used to think the universe was made...'

'We used to think the universe was made...'
We used to think the universe was made
of tiny invisible pin-points of energy, jostling
and tumbling and buzzing together, and so,
by whatever particular arrangement they took,
and the way in which they bounced off one another,
all sorts of physical matter could be produced.
Later we found the universe, in actual fact, is made
of tiny invisible threads of incredible length, and,

in the same way a violin string changes pitch
when touched at points along its measured span,
so all these interweaving loops and knots,
this tangle of quantum spaghetti,
as it flexes and line crosses line,
so it resonates throughout the whole bundle
a complex vibratory code that defines 
any outward appearance and characteristic.

After which we discovered the likely reality
was of tiny invisible sheets, many layers
of infinitesimal thinness, each film 
undulating at tremendous speeds;
multiple parallel oceans, their rippling surfaces
folding and flattening, wave-crests on wave-crests,
nudged at and nosed at, their lingering kisses 
collected, expressed as specific material forms.

We were young, we were anxious to clutch at
whatever proof fitted. Still, humility liberates;
when it comes to matters of truth we’re not picky.
Ironing our numbers presented the ideal
of tiny invisible shapeshifting blocks that squirm
and bulge, interlock and uncouple, that rub,
knock, wobble, split, and so make up 
the whole gamut of substances we take for granted.

All this was long ago. Our models had risen
to eleven-dimensional-space when
our application for further funding was rejected
and we were asked to vacate the premises.
We took it well, were optimistic for the future,
though that was hardly the crux of the issue:
just try transporting eleven-dimensional furniture
in an incontrovertibly three-dimensional van.
J.O. Morgan

From Interference Pattern (London: Jonathan Cape, 2016). Reproduced by permission of the author.

J.O. Morgan

J.O. Morgan's first book of poetry, Natural Mechanical (CB Editions, 2009), won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize; he has since published five further collections. 

Read more about this poet
About 'We used to think the universe was made...'

This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2016. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2016 was Catherine Lockerbie.

Editor's comment:

This whole collection is an intellectual tour de force, an inventive jeu d’esprit. Lines of narrative and energy buzz back and forth, in and out, like electricity, like static. It was difficult to single out any one passage/poem (they are not presented as stand-alone poems though many function as such) but this wonderful multiple theory of the universe  again shows poetry and science feeding each other, the endlessly questing human mind. The physics of the tiny pin-points of energy, or is it invisible threads, or is it undulating layers, or eleven dimensions – this is dizzying enough. The  ending, a bump of thrawn and funny back-to-earth reality, shows J.O. Morgan’s dizzying range and elan.

Author's note:

Not long after this book was released I was discussing various thought experiments with my neighbour's then eleven-year-old son, and, since he grasped the concepts so easily, I mentioned this particular piece from the book and set him the challenge of trying to think up what theory would naturally follow that of the shape-shifting blocks. "Bottles," was his response, after a not unreasonable pause; "tiny invisible bottles." I considered this for a moment and then asked what would be inside such bottles. "More bottles," came his immediate reply. I made the suggestion that he might not be so very far from the truth. Bottles within bottles? Objects folding in upon themselves? Interminable regression? What a fine imagination he had. I only wonder now what I might have decided in regards this particular section of the book had I spoken to him on the subject prior to publication. Who can say?