High Speed Computing for Poets

Natasha Goldowski: Science, Cybernetics, and High Speed Computing at Black Mountain College

Elliot Inman

Paper presented at the Black Mountain College ReViewing Conference 2019 held on the campus of UNC-Asheville.

The success of any interdisciplinary curriculum often depends on a few individuals who are able to translate their expertise for a novice audience.  At Black Mountain College (BMC), Natasha Goldowski taught Chemistry to dancers, explained Cybernetics to poets, and published articles on “high speed computing” in the literary journal.  “When she lectured, her passion for the numerical mysteries of theoretical physics made it all momentarily clear to me… [T]he magic unrolled in a narrow band of clarity catalyzed by her marvelous intensity (Lyle Bongé).”

Born in Moscow in 1907, Goldowski earned a Ph.D. in Physics in France but fled the rise of the Nazi regime.  She immigrated to the US, taking a job at the University of Chicago and working as scientist on the Manhattan Project.  After World War II, with the rise of the Red Scare, she lost her security clearance due to the fact that she was Russian-born.  She taught at Princeton and then joined BMC in 1947.  Active in professional societies like the American Physics Society, Goldowski brought to BMC some of the most profound scientific ideas of the time.

Using the galley proofs from Norbert Wiener’s book on Cybernetics, she lectured and led a non-credit seminar influencing poets Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and others.  At the same time, in the first issue of The Black Mountain Review, she wrote of high speed computers, long before the ascendance of modern AI:  “They can learn, they can invent, they can compute an extraordinary amount of data, and they have an almost unlimited memory.  Their behavior is analogous to human behavior…”     

After BMC, she continued her work as a physicist and educator until her tragic death from meningitis in 1966.  But her impact at BMC resonates in the work of students and fellow faculty inspired by Goldowski’s teaching.

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