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Physics Professor Publishes Poems Celebrating 'Joy of Life'

The Butterfly Girl is Mike Finn's
second volume of verse

Attention to detail is second nature to Mike Finn. The William and Mary nuclear physicist has spent the better part of his career studying the smallest details of matter in his work with quarks. It is research he hopes will help tell the scientific story of the universe in which we live.

Details make the best stories, Finn says, and his latest publication, The Butterfly Girl, illustrates precisely that. Although the work does not often speak of particles or the evolution of matter, its stories possess a different kind of universal significance.

Physics professor Mike Finn, in true liberal-arts style, incorporates poetry into his physics lectures. Photo by Tim Jones.

A world away from physics, The Butterfly Girl is Finn’s second book of poetry, vignettes, memoirs and other short forms of writing. The scientist-turned-poet began writing pieces featured in his latest volume close to the same time he found his muse for the book Flashback: A Journey in Time, a collection of poems and stories about his experiences in Vietnam. But the challenge of writing such vivid, detailed accounts overwhelmed Finn, and the “lighter” pieces remained untouched until Flashback was complete.

Invigorated by his newfound talent, Finn sought to conjure his muse once again shortly after Flashback was published. He began attending writer’s workshops and classes at the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences. With inspiration as his guide, Finn began writing more regularly, and with more precision than ever before. But the literature he crafted did not resemble the work of a scientist out of his element, rather the journey of a true writer seeking his unique voice.

The volume The Butterfly Girl is pretty free. It’s a collection of works that discuss many things, including birth and death, redemption and loss, salvation and justification. But mostly it celebrates the “pure joy of life,” Finn said. “It is me trying to find my style.”

He writes in a variety of formats, each crafted primarily in free verse. Finn blatantly ignores the systematic and structural guidelines science would seem to have ingrained in him. But then again, this isn’t nuclear physics.

“What’s missing in science is the music,” Finn said. “Sometimes particular pieces write themselves, and I’ve learned to relax and allow the flow.”

Finn’s stories follow the sound of language and rely on its simplicity to provide contextual depth. Writing “with too much fancy language,” he said, can alienate the audience.

“I’m not writing to impress an English professor. The people I am trying to reach are just average people,” he said.

Even so, Finn employs some techniques physics has helped him hone. His arguments are always logical, his analytical ability proves thorough and, of course, his attention to detail is profound. But as he said, that’s where the stories are, and that’s what gets people to read them. “The smallest details can give a great sense of immediacy and reality, and help engage readers,” Finn says. “Then the readers can read what they want in a story and make it their own.”

Interpretation proves to be a task easily accomplished with the majority of Finn’s work. Ambiguity is welcome even when it invites controversy—an aspect of his stories Finn feels is true to life and necessary for living.

A true William and Mary professor committed to the liberal arts, Finn incorporates his poetry into his physics lectures. The poem “Galileo Galilei” was written to force his astronomy students to consider the story of the great scientist in a new way.(See poem below.)

The writer inside the nuclear physicist still has plenty of work ahead, Finn said. Each new poem is a leg of the journey, and each new day brings a new story. Perhaps his next work will be an epic poem. The details have yet to surface, but that’s another story.

by Tim Jones

Galileo Galilei

Once again, the Inquisition questioned me,
Are you quite certain
of what you have claimed to see?
I sweated, despite the chill.

Misunderstanding their intent, I replied,
through my lenses, I saw what I saw: spots on the sun;
valleys, mountains, and plains on the moon;
more moons circling Jupiter; the phases of Venus.

Heaven is quite a sight.
God’s creation is grander than we can possibly imagine.
Would anyone here care to see for himself?
Use the telescope lying before you on the table.

Their response was solemn and sure.
This Council will not be lectured
on that of which
we are already certain.

Let us speak plainly:
You are disturbing the people.
The truth will be what we say it is to be,
neither one word more nor one word less.

Defeated at last,
blinded by age,
broken in spirit,
I consented to their demands.

Your will be done, but, nevertheless,
Earth turns round the sun still,
no matter what you choose to believe,
or what I am forced to confess.

© 2015 The College of William & Mary