The Commuter Challenge

1 August 2006

The August 2006 Challenge

by CC @ 00:01

Write a sonnet about superconductors. Fourteen lines, strict meter, and please choose any accepted rhyme scheme (there are several possibilities that way). Don’t know anything about superconductors? Neither do I, but that just makes it more interesting and challenging. Think this challenge is too easy for you, and you can rattle off such a sonnet in a half hour? Then take the month to craft a really really really good sonnet about superconductors.

The Results

Ryan Finholm
The phonon-pairing, the superfluid feat,
e to the power of alpha over T,
Or transitioning phase sans latent heat
Still can’t explain your aversion to me.
Though your resistance is quite normal now
And everyone resists to some degree,
I cannot help but feel perturbed at how
You’re frigid when you stop resisting me.
If you could bathe in helium, or swim
In nitrogen, bearing the burning cold,
I’d shoo away the swarming cherubim
And take their place above your manifold.
Were I magnetic, I would levitate,
Suspended o’er your chilled ceramic plate.
Brian Raiter

In the Superconductor Research Laboratory

An alloy kept unearthly cold here lies.
Technicians and researchers crowd around,
And poke, and prod, and measure, and propound
Hypotheses to test, and then revise,
Then test again. The calm façade belies
The fevered hope with which their dreams resound:
To be the one its workings to expound,
A feat that’s sure to win a Nobel Prize!
And deep within the subatomic space,
The crystal’s interstices form the basis
In which electrons race, with steady pace —
Each marking out the path the next one chases —
To trace forever, with supernal grace,
A perfect place kept perfectly in stasis.
Andy Hamlin
In rack at Cellophane Square doth it sit–
my bold abstract assumption puts it, rather;
For, strained at deadline for some sort of wit,
I’ve scare bothered to check, and merely, rather
Deigned to note, its placing on the track list–
Seven, of eleven, four and forty-seven runneth;
And were you to fill your mouth, then boldy lisp
The critters on the album cover, you’d get “bunneth.”
Foul pop-ups barred my way to analyzing lyrics
First time ’round, but tapping forth vigorously
Atop processor just-maybe stamped by Cyrix
Produced requir’d material, set to, rigorously…
Ho, “surprise”, it dealeth not in smallest whit,
Save by metaphor, (applied with what “precocity”
Could call it we, did Web notes not admit
Origin tricenarian) the “conductor, super” bit.
Have thee much confusion hence desire to flush,
But soft, I speak here only of a song by Rush.

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  1. I thought mine kicked ass until I saw Brian’s. The beats in some of the lines of my sonnet were a little off, but I was proud of the general direction it took, and I can’t stress how happy I am with, “I’d shoo away the swarming cherubim and take their place.”

    But Brian’s was on a completely different level. I feel like fuckin’ Salieri. Curse you, genius!

    Andy’s was a lot of fun, but I can’t believe he didn’t know what a sonnet was.

    by RyanF — 30 January 2008 @ 00:52

  2. Andy’s four extra lines were an honest mistake. Heck, I didn’t even notice that it was too long until I did the HTML formatting. I’ve had this problem myself in the past, and I think squeezing a complete idea into the given space is, more often than not, one of the main challenges to writing a sonnet.

    I like Ryan’s because it reminds me so of Edna St. Vincent Millay. (This may be confirmation bias on my part, since I already knew he had read her sonnets, but nonetheless.)

    I could probably go on for pages about my sonnet, because I remember those sorts of things well. Later on I probably will. For now I’ll just note that I found it a very promising start to the Commuter Challenge. I had been worried that trying to do something every month would prove to be too much. But the sonnet-writing fit nicely into my available free time, with only minimal distruption to my regular schedule. And there was no doubt in my mind that I would not have finished the sonnet had there not been a deadline.

    by breadbox — 31 January 2008 @ 20:11

  3. I’ve written a few sonnets before, but never an Italian sonnet, so I used this as an opportunity to try my hand. An Italian sonnet uses the restrictive rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA for the first octave. (The final sestet can use a few different schemes, such as CDCDCD or CDECDE.)

    Traditionally a sonnet describes an idea or problem in the first octave, which is then contrasted or resolved in the sestet. About halfway through August it occurred to me that the fact that a superconductor’s charge will circulate indefinitely without draining energy (e.g. from an attached battery) means that the system as it stands is at its lowest energy level. In other words, the system is already in stasis — it would require more energy for the charge to stop moving. I then got the idea of imagining the moving electrons as if in a quiet dance of maintained perfection, and contrasting that with the bustling, chaotic activity of a lab. High-temperature superconductors are poorly understood, and whoever puts forth a comprehensive theory that explains how they work will receive major accolades, not to mention significant financial rewards if the theory points the way to making superconductors cheaply. So it’s easy to manage a superconductor laboratory as a busy and frantic place.

    Once I had my contrast, I started working on the sestet. I wanted it to have an absolutely perfect meter and lots of internal rhymes, to suggest the perfect, crystalline structure of a superconductor and its electron dance. However, I was frustrated at first: I really wanted “stasis” to be the final word of the sonnet, but “basis” was the only perfect rhyme I could find for it. I need at least one more rhyme. Now normally an imperfect rhyme like “bases” would be fine with me, but this seemed to undermine my attempt at a crystalline sestet. But I really wanted to end with “stasis”, so finally I went through the available -ases rhyme words. When I realized how many they were, and how appropriate most of them were to the subject matter, I knew that I was on the right track. I considered having all six lines of the sestet rhyme with -ases/-asis, but I quickly discovered that using -ase as a second rhyme sounded just as good, if not better, and involved fewer grammatical contortions. With all this in hand, I then spent a few hours actually writing the sestet. The first draft came together pretty quickly, which I then worked over until I felt the meter was as perfect as it was going to get. (One example: my original last line was “A perfect place held perfectly in stasis.” I didn’t like “held” because it implied that the electrons were somehow imposing the stasis. I finally hit upon “kept” as a one-syllable alternative that suggests maintenance rather than imposition.)

    I worried less over the octave, which I wrote a few days later. Since it was describing a bustling and chaotic place, I didn’t mind the meter being a little uneven in places. Basically I wrote down a dozen or so sentences describing the lab, and then picked through them until I had ideas that I could make rhyme four times. “Nobel Prize” and “crowd around” were the rhyming words I started with. (I cheated a little bit, since technically “propound” and “expound” aren’t rhymes. But I was so happy that I could make use of both words in a natural way, so I just kept them in separate stanzas.)

    Analyzing a simple sonnet in such detail is a little like dissecting a butterfly, I realize. But I think seeing the guts of one butterfly helps you to appreciate all butterflies.

    by breadbox — 12 February 2008 @ 03:26