John T. Canaday

His most recent book, Critical Assembly, is a collection of poems in the voices of the men and women—scientists, spouses, laborers, locals, and military personnel—involved in the Manhattan Project. His previous book of poems, The Invisible World, set in the Middle East and New England, won a Walt Whitman Award from the Academy of American Poets. He is also the author of a nonfiction study, The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics, and the First Atomic Bombs. Canaday’s poems have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Raritan, and Slate, among other journals and anthologies. He has received two Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowships and has been a Watson Fellow in England, a Starbuck Fellow in Poetry at Boston University, and a tutor to the Royal Family of Jordan.


Richard Feynman Physicist; Diffusion Problems Group leader

Once people thought that angels beat their wings to push the earth in its ordained track around the sun as easily as we might move a blackboard covered with Serber’s latest figures. That view has now been somewhat modified.

The blank, unassuming face of a blackboard makes it easier to calculate the sun’s mass, and gravity’s figures speak louder than the handful of earth in a man. Numbers don’t change their minds, like people or angels.

As a boy, I thought I’d been left on Earth by aliens. I could figure the rotational velocity of a changeup, but my aim was a radian off. While the sun arced through the blue vault like an angel, I scrawled resonance equations on a blackboard.

On my first drive up to Los Alamos, the sun on cottonwoods and sandstone transformed me. I’d been thinking of Arline in the TB ward in Albuquerque. The doctors figured she had a year. My heart was a blackboard covered in odds. The naked earth

rose before me then like the figure of an angel. I could spend my life slaving at a blackboard and never quantify the way light shifted in her eyes. I lay down on a bare patch of earth to think. My chest was heavy with sun.

I chose the smaller job: alter the course of a war. Armed with a blackboard, I would earn my place on Earth. Behind me, an angel beat her wings. I circled the sun with a lasso of figures.

from Critical Assembly (University of New Mexico Press)

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