atomic bomb, bass, Beethoven, chain reaction, chalkboard, counterpoint, echo, electron, equation, fission, fugue, fusion, hydrogen bomb, Jacob Stockinger, key, mathematics, melody, Mozart, nucleus, pedal, prelude, Steinway & Sons, The Super, The Well-Tempered Clavier, treble
Late at night, when he is not in his lab
Building the world’s first atomic bomb,
Dr. Edward Teller is back in his barracks.
He thinks through his fingers
As he pedals with his fake right foot,
Practicing and playing on the century-old Steinway
He had shipped to the high New Mexico desert.
The physicist’s taste runs to Mozart and Beethoven.
But tonight he is working on Prelude and Fugue no. 8
In E flat minor and D sharp minor,
from Book I of Johann Sebastian Bach’s
The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Since childhood, his mind has been held captive
By only two things: the music of mathematics
And the mathematics of music.
This slow, melodious and mournful
Music, he finds, is solidly, stolidly built.
The paired-up pieces match,
Mirror-like in their linkage
Like fission and fusion,
Like Bombs A and H.
Bach and bombs seem compatibly ingenious,
Old equations for a new beauty.
He likes how the main melody at the core
Radiates and grows, outward and inward,
Down and up, across treble and bass.
The multiple voices echo in a chain reaction of sound,
Like the counterpoint of nuclei and electrons,
And the dialogue of chalkboard equations.
The transparent thickness of Baroque beauty
Suits his scientific bent and emotional need,
His taste for a stately and elegant destruction
In which he can lose himself and others.
He knows that the two pieces remain something of a mystery,
The only ones Bach wrote in those keys,
Obscure keys that no one used back then.
But rarity equals a kind of originality
and that attracts Teller, who is still thinking up
“The Super,” his own word for an even
more powerful thermonuclear device.
That is what he now calls apocalyptic energy,
When he is not playing Bach.
And especially when he is.