I Can See Clearly Now

This poem discusses "adaptive optics," that branch of optics that analyzes the distortion of light and compensates for it in real time, usually by large numbers of small computer-controlled mirrors, or larger, flexible ones. Astronomers find this extremely valuable because the light coming from stars must travel through our atmosphere, whose turbulence causes the familiar "twinkle." While this twinkle may be the stuff of romance and poems, it is a great annoyance to astronomers, because stellar photographs that would otherwise turn out sharply focused are terribly blurred. They moaned, "If we could only counteract that atmospheric turbulence, just think what we could see. . ."

This poem was first published in the November/December 1998 issue of Quantum Magazine.

(back to "Scientific Poetry" Table of Contents)

I Can See Clearly Now
Copyright 1997 David Arns
A fascinating concept has been shaped in recent years:
An excellent idea that, no doubt, elicits cheers
From optical astronomers who, down here on this earth,
Greet the news with celebrations, merriment, and mirth.

The problem first was seen more than three centuries ago,
When Christian Huygens saw that every heav'nly body's glow,
When looked at through a telescope, was always seen to quiver,
Like seeing a reflection in the ripples of a river.

And later, Isaac Newton noticed similar effects--
"A problem with the optics?" No, this thought he soon rejects;
The problem was the atmosphere: the light's distorting there.
"The remedy," he quipped, "is most serene and quiet air."

And so, for years--no, centuries--the best that we could do
Was this infernal "twinkling" of the air we must look through.
And photographic plates containing images of stars
Had fuzzy, blobby, blurs that looked five times the size of Mars.

Then came a project: SDI (or "Star Wars," as it's called),
The ground-based super heat-ray had our laser boys enthralled:
"Why, we could shoot down missiles, both the main one and the spare,
If light did not diverge and scatter, going through the air."

They saw that this distortion could be compensated for
By analyzing twinkle (quite a computational chore)
And mirrors that could change their shapes to counteract the blur:
"We'll whip the beam back into shape, and that we know for sure!"

Well, SDI was cancelled, but the knowledge that they'd learned
Was "what the doctor ordered," the astronomers discerned:
The ability to counteract the twinkle caused by air--!
The potential of what might be seen was more than they could bear.

So, several of the larger 'scopes--ten or twelve or more--
Will get adaptive optics, which will open up the door
To sharper, clearer images of objects out in space,
From galaxies to quasars to the nebulas' fine lace.

And what will clearer vision do for people, in the main?
Will our thoughts extrapolate like links within a chain?
It would be nice, when looking at a galaxy or star,
To see the cosmos' vastness, and how minuscule we are.

(back to "Scientific Poetry" Table of Contents)