originally written as a letter:

I became aware of the German poet, Johann Heinrich Voss, early on in my childhood. He lived in a half-timbered house next to the old city wall and my school’s playground. The stamp commemorating his 250th birthday was issued at the same time that I found “The Chambered Nautilus”, a poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, a contemporary of Voss.  nullThe poem distinguished Holmes in much the same way that Voss became famous for his translation of the Iliad.

The nautilus shell has fascinated me for decades. The poem by Holmes became a bridge for me to the Iliad and the Greeks, with their attraction to the ocean which mirrors my own after 40 years living on an island.

The unique characteristics of the nautilus traverse seemingly unrelated disciplines of mathematics, biology, and even literature. Descartes marveled that the spiral of the Nautilus shell follows a logarithmic equation. Marine biologists consider the nautilus to be a living fossil with endless numbers of species having lived 500 million years ago in oceans all over the globe. But only the Nautilus, and a close relative, Argonaut, conspicuously named after heros of Greek mythology, survived.

As an engineer, I’m comfortable with the idea that an appealing shape can be expressed by a mathematical equation. I had the same experience when I learned that the arc of the Jefferson Expansion Memorial in St Louis is based on a reversed weighted chain equation. But there is another engineering marvel that is frequently associated with seashells: their ability to form solids of great beauty by putting atomic layers upon atomic layer, an enormous feat that has only recently been accomplished in high-tech laboratories under the name “nanotechnology.” The Nautilus is the only creature with the ability to float at various sea levels by regulating the pressure in its chambers via a thin tube. The first nuclear submarine named “Nautilus” based on that ability became famous when it crossed the North Pole underneath the polar ice cap.
For me personally, Holmes’ poem also has a tragic dimension. The Sunday morning that I discovered it was also the last time my brother in law, Burt Levin, was at our home in Manhasset. Two days later he had a heart attack, and he died two days after that. Burt’s sister Paula was familiar with the poem, but I’ll never know whether he was. As a patent attorney, the technical details would have interested him.

I was reminded of the poem’s references to the sea on June 3rd when Burt’s ashes were scattered over the Atlantic Ocean off the New Jersey coast. At the same time as his ashes were being scat-tered, we stood on Jones Beach on Long Island thinking of him while looking at that same ocean.
This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sail the unshadowed main,–
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.
Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,–
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!
Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.
Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn;
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:–
Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!
Oliver Wendall Holmes (1809-1894