William Spillman moves from "emotional diary" to published works
May 16, 2005
Virginia Tech's associate professor of physics William Spillman’s works include titles ranging from “The Singer and the Song” and “Mountain Dreams” to “Pattern detection through the use of long gauge length spatially weighted fiber optic sensors” and patents with names such as “Ultrasonic detection of restinosis in stents.”
The biophysicist has a poetic side.
Spillman, of Floyd, also is director of the Virginia Tech Applied Biosciences Center and a published poet and a songwriter. He teaches Biophysics and Cancer, but writes poems called “Immortality,” “Tomorrow,” and “Creation Myth.” He researches “The emerging sciences of complexity,” but writes poems about rainbows, rain, autumn, and wind.
His articles have been published in major professional publications such as Physical Review, The Journal of Optical Engineering, the Journal of Smart Materials and Structures, and the Journal of Lightwave Technology. His poetry has been published in literary journals such as the Tucumcari Literary Review, the Lyric, Appalachian Heritage, and The Hollins Critic. One of his poems placed second in the National 2004 Poetry Contest sponsored by the Roanoke Valley Chapter of American Pen Women and another one received honorable mention.
Accustomed to doing scientific research, Spillman approached improving his poetry writing the same way: by studying the process. As a youngster, he had “used poetry to create an emotional diary” that showed how he felt and did not worry about craft. Work and children kept him from writing much poetry for some years. However, “the need to write poetry was always hanging in the background.” So he wanted to do it right. “I studied the tools of writing poetry, did a lot of exercises and explored the tension between form and content.”
Then, skills at hand, he waited for the muse to strike. “I waited and I waited and I waited,” he said. “At that point, I adopted the method of writing poetry that I still follow today, which I call ‘stochastic’ poetry—or random writing," in the belief that, if he writes enough, “some fraction of it will turn out to be OK by accident.”
Whether by accident or by perfecting his skills through the writing of hundreds of poems, Spillman has had about a dozen poems published in literary journals and a slew of them in Floyd County’s Museletter, a publication in which the area’s poet’s “play off each other,” Spillman said.
He introduced scientific words and language to his poetry because it was a language that came naturally to him and because it brought another level to the poetry. “There’s great beauty to science and mathematics that people who don’t study it do not get to see,” he said. “I feel pleased to see it.”
For example, Spillman said, “You prove a mathematical theorem and all the pieces fit together; it’s beautiful. I try to bring some of that beauty into my poems. If nothing else, it causes people to look up words they don’t know.”
Spillman came to Virginia Tech in 1999. His life before that included a stint in the Army, research and teaching at several industries and universities with work ranging from researching smart implants to aerospace aircraft integrated systems to advanced biomedical devices for the Goodrich Corporation, working on smart structures in England, teaching electrical engineering and physics in Vermont, and writing folk songs and creating several CDs of his music. He had wanted to be a physicist since junior high school, but when he got out of the Army, he debated whether to go to graduate school or try to be a musician, as he played five-string banjo, guitar, and harmonica and sang in clubs.
At Virginia Tech, Spillman researches complex adaptive systems and does cancer research at the Virginia-Maryland Regional Veterinary School. “Cancer is a physical system,” he said. “Cancer grows and then metastasizes, which is a phase transition.” He is looking at what in the structure of the body can indicate how close to transition, or metastasizing, a cancer is. That, in turn, will help determine if a particular treatment works. He also teaches biophysics and computational physics that involves mathematical models of systems, and he also looks at physics concepts that can be applied to biology.