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. The 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.