By Kaitlyn Tsai

Orders of Magnitude

Right now, I am not a scientist and I am not a poet. I am just a daughter. I have to remember: It’s simple. You just need to keep your eyes open, your hands ready.
By Elane M. Kim

I like science because it is poetic.

In the lab, you label cells and give them funny names for the colors they’ve swallowed and try to trace back their microscopic lifetimes in macroscopic detail. Ki67 shows up in bright pink pricks. And then there is K8, startlingly blue, a licked flame under fluorescent light. You look for patterns of brightness in a sea of tissue. You find the mother of a mother of a mother of a cell until the thread snaps, until the light dulls, until there is nothing to do but unearth what killed each of them.

And maybe I like poetry because it is scientific: how you give names to the feelings that swallow and acidify and digest you, then sort them into stanzas like neat rows of teeth. The surgical precision of a volta as it turns, or the flinch after a line-break you didn’t see coming. You can label the hurt and leave it to settle. You can stop holding the ache and instead let it hold you.

Somewhat unlike cells and poems, the borders of my body are a little blurred. I am growing and differentiating, splitting into many halves and quarters, eighths and sixteenths. I am figuring out syntax and enjambment and the elements of style. There are times when I stare at the immobile ceiling fan of my childhood bedroom or the smoke detector of my freshly-minted college dorm and feel a bone-deep sense of disorientation. As if I am a stranger in my own body and its fragile limbs. All the pieces that don’t fit inside a confidence interval or an exact answer — fragmented, unpinnable, and somehow still whole.

Maybe this is why, as a child, I found approximations distressing, like how 3.14 is an approximation of π or how laughter is an approximation of music. How memory is an approximation of every breath held before motion. The apprehensive fear of a safety pin gone missing or a lost shard of glass—all these wounds that echo through absence.

I hold my breath and it is almost enough to mask this nagging feeling of smallness. It is strange to imagine how many lifetimes I am witnessing in a single microscope slide or the cast of an old Dickens book or the timelapse of a white-hot comet streaking across the horizon. It is strange to think about things in orders of magnitude that barely seem real.

The thing is, I’ve never been particularly good at estimation. Off the top of my head, I cannot tell you how many grains of sand it takes to fill up a warm desert (~10^30 grains) or how many bricks were laid to build Annenberg (~10^5 bricks). These are questions that take up more real estate than the back of an envelope (~10^2 cm^2) but less than a gaping sky (~?). Questions of sand, or the number of bodies on a spinning planet, or just my body and its infinite feelings.

I have no answers, so I hold my breath; it is only an approximation, but Eomma’s face materializes into memory, into warm pools of light. It is late spring, and I am a daughter who does not yet know about antibodies or anaphora, metaphor or memory. It is late spring, and Eomma is teaching me how to make rice. “It’s simple, watch,” she says, her Korean soft and gentle. A little unfamiliar in its slowness.

Add rice knuckle-deep. Fill water up to the sharpest line of your finger, the indentation that separates fat and bone. Feel around the water with careful hands, swish like a mouthful of chemicals, pour out the milky white. Remember to wipe the sink down. It’s like forgetting. Like nothing was ever there.

I have so many questions: What brand of rice? How many cups of water? Which line of which finger? But right now, I am not a scientist and I am not a poet. I am just a daughter. I have to remember: It’s simple. You just need to keep your eyes open, your hands ready.

The grains are fat and translucent. They wriggle against Eomma’s palms as she rinses. She does not blink. “It will be too starchy if you skip this step,” Eomma says.

It’s simple, but I am not watching the water or the rice. I am watching her hands. How much they carry and how much they have held; her hands as thousands of sliced pears (~10^3 even cuts) or the conglomerate of so many fires (~10^2 burns dressed in cling wrap), or just hands, holding mine.

Even this is a kind of poetry, I think. These grains and their quiet uncertainty. Their minute attempts at light.

— Magazine writer Elane M. Kim can be reached at

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