An Engineer's Literary Notebook

Exploring the real and surreal connections between poetry and engineering

The Poetry Of Memory

Posted by xbanguyen on November 29, 2015

DreamCarLast night I saw my father smiling broadly behind the wheel of a shiny Vetta. The chrome trims, the cream leather,  accents the color of ocean made my admiration for the automobile felt normal, Vetta a normally coveted make of cars believable the way memory recalled in dreams reinvented itself effortlessly, imposing itself nonchalantly. Where those fragments of memory go when the dreams recede I do not know. I only know that bits of that dream hung on as I woke. The familiar sense of loss returned, but this time a little less pronounced because I was busy reaching toward the source of those fragments, the hippocampus of dreams where my father still writes poetry.

Is it the hippocampus of dreams that I should seek? To answer the question I would need to know whether my quest is for a long term explicitlimbic or implicit memory.  The biology students among us already know that explicit memory involves conscious awareness, recording facts, events,  objects, people and places via the hippocampus and adjacent cortex, whereas implicit memory is acquired unconsciously to store perceptual and motor skills, requiring not the hippocampus but the cerebellum, the striatum, and the amygdala.   Do you find it difficult to reconcile the association of those tangible biological parts to such gossamer things like memory?  It has been shown experimentally that the human brain contains about 86 billions neurons.  A single neuron can have up to a thousand synapses, the units of information storage for short-term memory. The engineer in me dispassionately appraised the experiment’s method of counting neurons whereas that other part of me recited from memory the poems I read to my father, over and over again because his short term memory was not what it had been.

neuronAs far back as I could remember, my father wrote poetry.  He wrote each of us a poem to celebrate our births. He wrote about ordinary happenings such as the time when he showed his little sister the newly hatched chicks, about his empathy for the Quynh flowers that bloomed at midnight with no one watching, about running out of tea when a friend visited.  Later,  I think he found poetry cathartic as he tried to work out the helplessness he felt after finding refuge in another country, as evident in this poem.


moonThe moon was a recurrent image in his poetry. Even toward the end when his memory had all but gone, he smiled when I read one of his favorite stanzas of “Chinh Phu Ngam” to him, the one where the drumbeats on the long rampart shook the moon.  By then he had stopped writing, and suddenly his numerous poems were no longer enough, sad poems, happy poems, and the poems he wrote for my mother, the love of his life for sixty years. She went first and I could not bear it when he asked after her, her for whom he wrote this poem:


I got up early and went to work in the garden this morning. The blue sky, clear and crisp, made it impossible to brood. The autumn joy sedium, confined to a container, had withered. But at its base I spied some new green. I lifted it up gently and placed it securely under a piece of earth across from the heritage rose. It will bloom again next year.  I thought about the many roses in my father’s garden. I still don’t know if there is an afterlife, but I am thankful that my father’s love of gardening and, especially, his love of poetry live on in me.


Thank you for helping me heal, dear Muse.



  1. The limpic drawing is from
  2. The moon drawing is from
  3. The sedium photograph is from
  4. Most of the brain and memory information is from
  5. The number of neurons is from
  6. The turquoise car photo is from,

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

A Simulated Sky

Posted by xbanguyen on August 10, 2014

A Simulated Sky.

Posted in Aerogel, chemistry, summer | Leave a Comment »

A Simulated Sky

Posted by xbanguyen on August 10, 2014

summerSkyEarly summer morning stops being a cliché when you catch a glimpse of that peculiarly blue sky standing by the kitchen window at five nursing a hangover from reading past two. It has been some years but that blue sky is still dependable, the anticipation of traveling, airborn, to somewhere can still be conjured up. If you need to simulate that blue sky, would silica gel work? AerogelChemistryAfter all, silica gel is 98% air, and holding it in your hand has been compared to holding a piece of sky. Now you must agree that there is an extreme beauty in that simile, and it has been said that in every extreme beauty there is an extraordinary disproportionality. Accepting that premise, you would not be surprised to find out that aerogels are known for their extremely low densities  which range from 0.0011 to ~0.5 g cm-3. The production of silica gels involves the reaction of a silicon alkoxide with water in a solvent such as ethanol or acetone in the presence of basic, acidic, and/or fluoride-containing catalyst. In this technique, a silicon alkoxide serves as the source for the silica, water acts as a reactant to help join the alkoxide molecAerogelules together, and a catalyst helps the underlying chemical reactions go fast enough to be useful; silicon alkoxides are usually non-polar liquids, however, they are not miscible with water. To compensate, a solvent such as ethanol or acetone, which is miscible with both silicon alkoxides and water, is added in order to get everything into the same phase so the necessary chemical reactions can occur. That word “miscible” is entreating, but let’s just be content with noting it for now. What comes out takes on an ethereal beauty. See for yourself. The ephemeral nature of the summer sky notwithstanding, I am still bound by this surly bond of earth and sometimes must make do with the beauty of wood. It is no great hardship, however, as evident in this poem


The poem accentuates the sensation of permanence as it quietly sings the stoicity and enduring nature of wood. To be reminded that books being rustling wood moves me – the murmur of the pages has always been a favorite sound. The usefulness of books because they are pliable when held in my hands becomes evident  after reading under the sun and I need to shade my eyes for a quick nap; the e-reader just does not provide the same tactile experience. It is so easy to let go with the scent of paper so close, the sand beneath, the instant darkness allowing stardust to shimmer under my eyelids at midday as I fell asleep mulling over  NASA’s congruous use  of aerogels to catch particles from passing comets.


Thank you, dear muse for the paradox of being present in your absence.



1) The aerogel photo and chemical composition are from

2) The “surly bond of earth” is from the poem High Flight”  byJohn Gillespie McGee Jr.

Posted in Aerogel, chemistry, John Richardson, summer | Leave a Comment »

A Transformed Isolation

Posted by xbanguyen on January 27, 2014

Nothing is the word that renovates the world.”  The sentence fairly leaped off the page, seizing my shoulder, sitting me down to start this post. Reading a couple of lines further that “No is the wildest word we consign to language” flashed an insight so briefly, leaving in its wake an afterglow barely visible but definitely not a mirage. That’s reading Emily Dickinson in Seatttle this winter evening. EmilyD Much has been said about her poetry, her life and that sense of mystery, but you will see that it got closer to home. As an awkward high school sophomore lurking about the halls of Lincoln High, before empowering became a cliche in the corporate world, I was empowered by her permission to select a society of one, dignified by a virtual stone door. Many years later, I sometimes wonder about her reasons for choosing to live isolated from the outside world. Inspite of her isolation, she transformed the world of many readers, this one especially, across space and time — the effect of her poetry is not unlike that of an isolation transformer. Lest you think that this notion is far-fetched, consider that the ioslation transformer transfers power in the form of AC current from the source via the primary winding to the load at the secondary winding, the primary and secondary not connected by conduction but by induction. In safety application, this isolation protects the users of the device connected to the secondary winding while transfering power to the device. Isolation transformerLikewise, her poetry provides power to assuage my needs for beauty while protecing me from her piercing gaze into human frailties, most– if not all — of which I am a bearer.

The effort to understand her influence even after all these years reduces me to a mass of uncertainty. Is it her wry humor seeing that bird coming down the walk, the reckless abandonment in the wild night that invokes such shudderingly delicious delight, WildNight the condescension proferring to death, or that formal feeling comes after great pain? Is there an alchemy that eludes me?  Or all it takes is to pay close attention to the words, as Fasrnoosh Fathi wisely pointed out?


It was not a book, but a bundle of letters  and rumination in my imagination, with bunches of lavender strewn about. I remember the warmth of the satisfaction reading about the letters edged with gold stripes found by Jen and Margueritte as they cleared up the attic of their great aunt to prepare for Margueritte’s wedding chamber in “As the Earth Turned”, me whose feet barely found balance landing in Portland after the fall of Saigon. This is not meant to be autobiographical so I will stop while I still can, echoes from my mother’s reading of Alphonse Daudet still resonate and for that I am thankful.


Thank you for the many pleasures, dear muse.


1) The protrait of Emily Dickinson is from

2) The fragments of her poems are from

3) The transformer diagram is from

4) The fireside reader painting is from

Posted in Emily Dickinson, Physics | Leave a Comment »

In the Presence of Light

Posted by xbanguyen on April 28, 2013

What part of speech is your most favorite word? Is it something you reveal to amost anybody who cares to ask, or only to a selected few, or would you reveal nothing even to the most intimate, hugging the word all the while? Let’s say that your favorite word is an adverb that brings to mind the sea, as in


What does that reveal about you?

The coming of May brings to mind the fragility of the himalayan poppy. The blue of this flower holds hints of promise from the bluepoppysummer sky to come.  The almost translucent petals have a daintiness that belies the rocky terrain of their native land. They look ethereal, perhaps because their color is not an intrinsic property of theirs.


Rather they give off light that enters the eye,  striking photo receptors, the rods and the cones, on the retina. As you know, light is a form of electromagnetic energy, comprising of photons  characterized by wave-particle duality.  The photo receptors in the retina convert photons into eletro-chemical signals that are then processed by ganglion cells, a type of neurons, then sent to the brain [1] to be perceived as blue, azure, cerulean, but perhaps not indigo, sapphire nor cobalt.  What about the colors we see in dreams? What about remembered colors? How can my memory still recall with minute details the green of the leaves one summer I spent in Minneapolis and the coral of my dress bathed in light one morning as I found that my ASIC worked first time? Perhaps memory delineated with colors lasts longer, but whether it can be done intentionally I do not know. I do know that I am drawn to this poem, almost helplessly, inspite of the bright blue outside my window this morning.


The emphatic  negations pulsing with resigned affirmation pull me inward with a longing to arrive at the source of this turbulence. The different shades of blue appear to blend into a blackness, paradoxically because black is the absence of light. The despair imparted by the poem lies heavily but not unpleasantly on my mind. Then logic prevails. There must be some light to perceive colors.  The short-lived plants of years past notwithstanding, I will again try to coax the meconopsis betonicifolia to grow far from home.

Happy birthday, dear muse.



[2] The poppy photo is from
[3] The retina diagram is from
[4] The electromagnetic spectrum is from


Posted in Biology, Colors, Gardening, Lynn Powell, Physics | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Of Chirality and Mobius Strips

Posted by xbanguyen on September 30, 2012

Of Chirality and Mobius Strips.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Of Chirality and Mobius Strips

Posted by xbanguyen on September 28, 2012

Do you find it restful to enter a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, or do you prefer the thrill of a headlong dive into the turmoil of the author’s verbal consciousness? Always predictable, a typical  ASIC/FPGA specification our group develops leans toward the former,  the scope telling  you what to expect, the theory of operation unfolding in the implementation description culminating in the total power consumption after a proper traversal of the various time domains.  From the architectural description to the testability section,  a well-written device specification can impart a sense of coherency for you in a pinch, if  in spite of the best intention, you feel detached eating lunch while peering at the monitor to figure out the latest memory technology, DDR4, even when there actually are no needs whatsoever to be more rooted. In that situation, would the following lines make you smile, shaking off the self-imposed solitude to jump sideways onto a swiftly moving URL?

To an engineer, the astonishing simile encourages waywardness. The circular nature of the images invoked by this part of the poem makes me wonder if that road’s apparent surface is like a mobius strip. Traveling on its edge I will eventually get back to the same point but will have gone twice the length of the same road itself.  As you know, a mobius strip is a chiral object that can not be mapped into its mirror image by rotation or translation. In other words, the mobius strip is the starting place for creating non-orientable surfaces, those for which the concept of right and left has no meanings [1] . I will refrain from bringing up the current political climate, singing a lullaby to my partisan self.
This mathematically intriguing strip has Euler characteristic chi=0
Mathematical intrigues aside, this topology, having just one surface, was the concept used by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to suggest reconsidering the demarcation between the body and the self, conventionally thought of as clearly divided into an inside and an outside [2].  Lingering by the side border in this early autumnal evening when the iris leaves are still green, long and supple enough to be fashioned into mobius strips, I see  that the gradual emergence of one into the other provide a gentle tension to make these lines even more lovely, and be thankful.
Thank you for the excursion, dear muse,
1 The math information is from
4. The music Mobius is from

Posted in Chiracity, James Wright, Jane Hirschfield, Mobius strip, Topology | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Sequence Everlasting

Posted by xbanguyen on July 8, 2012

The scent of lilies at night made me feel like a voyeur as I walked along someone’s garden on the way back to the car after the  fireworks ended. I spied the thick petals rising over the ferns to bathe in the night air, the greenness of the ferns a perfect foil. This being July, the unfurling was mostly done, but the knowledge that the unfurling patterns followed the Fibonacci sequence made the world of numbers come alive in spite of a lack of moonlight. As you know. each number in Fibonacci sequences equals to the sum of the two preceding numbers.  Mathematically,  Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2. The Fibonacci sequence of order 2 (n =2) includes 0, 1, 3,5,8,13,21 … This series abounds in nature: the calla lily has one petal, euphorbia two,  buttercup five, delphinium eight, black-eye susan thirteen, aster twenty one. Is it the number of petals in the flowers that make them pleasing to the eye, or is there something else?  Perhaps, because the sun flowers actually have their seeds packed that way to maximize the number of seeds in that space with the angle between the appearance of each seed exactly the one that is least approximated by a fraction, the golden angle calculated from the golden means which is the ratio of two successive numbers in a Fibonacci sequence [1] .  It is the golden ratio Phi that creates the enduring beauty of the Parthenon, and underpins the face of the beloved.  How does a specific mathematical proportion cause a universal perception of beauty in the mind?  Will this poem shed some light on the bridge that links mathematics and beauty in the mind?

The tension in alternating the mind as both subject and object, enchanting and enchanted leaves me optimistic, especially the last line because by changing, the mind can create changes. By applying the golden ratio observed in nature to man made structures, we create beauty. That there are mathematical sequences behind beauty is encouraging because they add to the understanding of how we come to be and how we endure without depending on the existence of God, even though the comfort of believing in a greater being beckons as I mourn my mother. This series of posts has never been intended to be a journal, but I must mark her passing this past April. It took me several months to write again. This post is for you, mama, you who taught me how to solve for x by working out simple ratios, you who bought me many books of poems, explained to me the two-seven-six-eight meter in ca-dao, made potpourri for me from the roses in your garden, and most of all you who loved me unconditionally. I do not know if there is an afterlife, but I am grateful that your love of languages and things of beauty live on in me.

Thank you for the inspiration, dear muse.


2. The composite graphics of the sun flower is from and
3. The fern photo is from
4. The Fibonacci diagram is from
5. The Parthenon photo is from

Posted in Fibonacci, Golden Ratio, Marianne Moore | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Moon For All Seasons

Posted by xbanguyen on February 20, 2012

The night wasn’t so dark nor the horizon so stark when I returned and almost ran into a large moon hovering low behind the oak tree guarding the driveway down the street. I forgot how large the moon could appear. Tired after a long day, I yielded to all the crescents in my past, letting them break from their mooring to be suffused with this silvery light. Hackneyed though it may sound, it has got to be called silvery, you would agree too if you saw it. It did appear to be very close, close enough not to be jarred by the thought that for a brief time we were one. For it is theorized that a Mars-size planet collided with our earth when it was young with both planets’ mantles comprised of silica and their cores iron. The force of the collision was so great that the errant planet almost destroyed the earth, piercing through earth’s core, leaving almost all of its iron [1] . The earth endured and the moon emerged, sans iron, from the collision not unlike the phoenix rising from its ashes. Did you know that the moon is younger than its previously estimated age of 4,56 billion years? Just last August, an international team of US, French and Danish scientists announced a new technique of measuring the isotopes of lead and neodymium in a piece of rock brought back from the Apollo 16 mission to show that our moon is only 4.36 billion years old, the same age as the zircon found in Australia[2] . The mind’s comprehension of such large number adds a kind of permanence to the silvery light and I am glad.
Gladness is not the prevalent emotion I’ve found in moon-inspired poems. For beside exerting gravitational force on our waters to cause tides, the moon is also a force that leaves her marks in many poems. I could not choose just one so I’ll settle with couplets and stanzas of several much-admired poems that came my way and stayed – the one from Dylan Thomas has been with me for quite some time, Alicia Stallings’s makes formal meters appear illicitly daring. I can’t resist the juxtaposition of the stalking and therapeutic presence of the moon in the other excerpts, the rhythm of Emily Dickinson’s, nor let this post be unadorned by the prettiness of Joseph Eichendorff’s simile describing the shimmering light. And I wonder how it feels to unfold moonbeams.
The poetic pleasure indulged thus far is complemented by the fact that the moon has no atmosphere, but only a thin exosphere – a cubic centimeter of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level contains about 100 billion billion molecules whereas that same volume of the Moon’s exosphere contains only about 100 molecules[3] . Not only that, during the lunar night, this exosphere falls to the ground, sleeping perhaps. Because of this lack of atmosphere, footsteps left on the moon will last millions of years. Forever can’t be measured but relative permanence is possible, as long as the heliosphere endures to save us from the unrelenting intergalactic radiation.
Thank you for helping me choose, dear muse.
[7] The full moon photo is from
[8] With apologies to the poet A.E. Stalling for the fragmented quote of her poem.

Posted in A.E. Stallings, Andre Breton, Anne Stevenson, Heliosphere, Jane Cooper, Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Moon, Tides, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | 3 Comments »

A Transformation In Green

Posted by xbanguyen on December 10, 2011

Is it possible to reinvent yourself  from the same past? Is there a certain sheath of light you can put on to  fashion the rearranging of the molecules within to emerge anew, sporting a re-engineered memory filled with assured joy? Would you rather be a sojourner, a guest in many cities or to put down roots in a familiar place? Can you be both? Looking at the other face of the same coin, can desire alone forge the necessary transformation? Most likely not — you may have to make do with knowing that a certain kind of transformation is possible, mathematical transformation, that is. So tonight I will attempt to assuage the ghost of Jay Gatsby by considering the Laplace transform that provides a means to traverse between time domain and frequency domain.

 Ordinary engineering phenomena such as the switching transient in a RLC circuit and the harmonic vibration of a beam can be described using linear ordinary differential equations where inputs and outputs are functions of time. Converting these functions into frequency domain where inputs and outputs are functions of angular frequency using the Laplace transform make them easier to solve. Instead of calculus,they can be solved by algebra.  Such transformation is possible as long as the function satisfies certain Dirichlet conditions. [1] 

The precision found in mathematics possesses a certain beauty. Equally appealing is the certainty conveyed in those equations. If a set of conditions are met, at least one solution for the equations exists. If I planted red tulip bulbs this past November, the borders will be ablaze with colors comes spring. An adverb describing the motion of the pomegranate flower at the entrance to a walkway in a poem read many years ago in Vietnamese never fails to make me fall hard all over again for all the poems ever written in any languages.  One should be thankful for such constancy because it escapes being transformed by time, for not all transformations are to be desired, and we are not in control as this poem ruefully points out.

The opposing force twisting down the upward course of a wayward vine reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s poem of the green fuse that drives the flower.  The extreme adjectives describing the hope coursing within the vine carry an optimism that belies the bleak soundings. That vine some day will transform again back into a root from which a new plant will emerge , the resilient seeds sown in soil once wanted will form another Eden. All you have to do is to sow a seed or two, and to be indulgent of yourself. Would you give up being in control for the pleasure of being enthralled by a resolute Eden?

Thank you for listening, dear muse.
[2] The globe is from Google Earth.
[3] The village picture is from .
[5] The tulip painting is from

Posted in Jay Gatsby, Kay Ryan, Laplace transform, Ordinary differential equation, Transformation | Leave a Comment »


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