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by John H. Lienhard

Marcel Duchamp painted his Nude Descending a Staircase in 1912, just in time for the Armory Art Show. That same year, Rupert Brooke wrote a poem about the village of Grantchester; and Niels Bohr described electron orbits that were consistent with Planck's new quantum theory. Take them together, and we see a world lurching under our feet in 1912. Planck and Einstein had set the stage. Planck found he could explain the radiation spectrum by assuming energy changes only in quantum jumps. Einstein had followed with his papers on relativity and quantum mechanics.

When Bohr lent legitimacy to quantum mechanics, time, space, matter, and energy began flowing together like spilled paints. They could no more be put back the way they'd been than Humpty Dumpty could. All we'd ever tried to call real began coming apart.

Duchamp's nude, who was no nude at all, also rearranged reality. She was a cinematic series of images of a highly abstracted human figure — not as a camera would catch her, but broken into cubist fragments. It is as though we saw a nude suddenly coming down the stairs to join our party. Out of embarrassment, we glimpse her only in a series of blinks, from the corner of one eye. She is no longer an image at all. She is an event, smeared in time and space, just as photons and electrons were being smeared.

From left to right: Duchamps’ “nude” in black & white. Eadweard Muybridge’s photo of an actual nude descending a staircase, 1880s. For more on Muybridge, see article.

So our dizzying deconstructions continued throughout the twentieth century. And, in May of 1912, Rupert Brooke heard the sigh of that same Zeitgeist as he sat in a Berlin café, thinking about summer and his home in Grantchester, near Cambridge. He wrote,

... would I were
In Grantchester, in Grantchester!
Some, it may be, can get in touch
With Nature there, or Earth, or such.
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky,
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester.
Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? oh! Yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

The old church at Grantchester (Photo by JHL)

Time did blur, and Heisenberg made ten-to-three an instant too precise to specify. Brooke summoned up an afternoon so lovely that a French impressionist might've painted it. But, by then, the impressionists had also exhausted themselves with the beauty of summer skies. Artists had moved on to abstract forms — blurring time and space just as surely as Einstein and Planck had.

Now, another century is underway. My old 20th century kept right on blending and blurring after Rupert Brooke. Yet the green grass and the lapse of hours are still to be savored. How odd that a world of corporeal reality lingers — despite an incredible hundred years. For we have kept right on rearranging clouds and time, space and sunshine, darkness and light.


For more on Duchamp, see: Making Sense of Duchamp.

For the full text of Rupert Brooke's poem, see: The Old Vicarage, Granchester.

For elementary discussions of the Bohr Atom, visit this website on the subject.