Monuments of Magnificence

"Tell us about the craft of writing"
the students ask Robert Pinsky in
his first Poetry Workshop at Stanford.
He cites Yeats' Sailing to Byzantium:
"there is no singing school but study
monuments of its own magnificence."
telling us that if we wish to excel
in art, study things monumental—
as tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon
did, finding inspiration in Carl Jung and
Billie Holiday— Find something you love,
recall that feeling and share it with others.

A year has past— winter is here again
and Pinsky's words are still murmuring
in my ears to study things monumental—
and I think of the Great Pyramid & Sphinx,
to the Great Wall of China and Taj Mahal,
the cathedrals Chartres, Reims, Notre Dame,
Stonehenge and the temples of Angkor Wat.
I think of our Solar System, its planets
revolving around the Sun like clockwork
spinning to the music of the spheres,
our Milky Way and Orion galaxies—
Who's the Architect designing it all?

And I think of hemoglobin in our blood
carrying four molecules of oxygen
to the tissues to give us energy—
Four polypeptide chains each with iron
at the center, 574 amino acids with
10,000 atoms— an amazing edifice
solved in atomic detail by Max Perutz.
When awarded the Chemistry Nobel Prize,
he said that scientists only toil to unravel
that which already exists, a small gift
compared to artists creating works of beauty
such as the great Town Hall they're dining in.

Such humility from a Nobel Laureate
brought me tears as a first year grad student.
Years later while predicting protein structures
I received a British aerogram in Perutz's
miniscule handwriting apologizing his delay
in sending the tape on the atomic coordinates
of human deoxyhemoglobin at 2Å resolution.
He writes "I'm busy collecting diffraction data
and will mail the results as soon as it's complete."
I cried again— Here's the Chairman of Britain's
MRC Lab of 400, still doing the tedious work
usually left for technicians and grad students.

Such dedication to a lifetime's quest
that nature yielded her secrets to Perutz
after 40 years, telling him how hemoglobin
expands and contracts with oxygen intake
similar to our lungs breathing in and out.
From the minute molecules that give us life
to the magnificent expanse of the Milky Way,
from the majestic megaliths of Stonehenge
to the magnanimous mind of Max Perutz—
these are the monuments poets should learn
to admire, treasures to share with readers,
opening our mind to the infinite.

          — Peter Y. Chou
               Mountain View, 1-1-2008

        Structure of hemoglobin elucidated
        by Max Perutz in 40 years (1936-1976).
        Four protein subunits in red & blue,
        the iron-containing heme groups in green.

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (1-3-2008)