The year’s Nobel Prize winners in physics and literature both change the way we think
I told some friends that Tomas Tranströmer had won the Nobel Prize. Some responded, “Who?” and others said that it was cool that someone in Baltimore had won the Nobel.
This latter group, of course, had heard the local hubbub and were thinking about Adam Riess at the Johns Hopkins University, who (along with two other physicists) was awarded the Nobel in physics for showing that the universe is still expanding. Mr. Riess was able to infer this by observing close by and further away supernovae. And contrary to the expectation of universe observers who thought that the cosmos would be slowing down by now, so long after the big bang, Mr. Riess showed that the expansion of the universe is actually speeding up. Who knew?
The Nobel Prize confers a strange kind of celebrity, particularly in America, where celebrity attainment and study are an exact, natural science. Something is a little mushy in the criteria for that Nobel Prize award though, from the vantage point of America. They even gave one to Barack Obama, didn’t they? I think a lot of people had the same hope for the Obama presidency: bending the universe toward justice.
I started reading Mr. Tranströmer about 25 years ago. The publisher New Directions had brought him out in translation from his native Swedish, and I had found a dusty copy in a used book shop in Washington, D.C., when I thought poetry was the something that could effect the expansion or contraction of the universe. His poems seemed to me like a truth about our time, like Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” but allowing for something more beautiful, pleasurable, possible, while we wait.