Here we are, each of us a portable festival of wonder, standing on this rocky body born by brutality, formed from the debris that first swarmed the Sun 4.5 billion years ago and pulverized each other in a gauntlet of violent collisions, eventually forging the Moon and the Earth. Here we are, now standing on it, on this improbable planet bred of violence, which grew up to be a world capable of trees and tenderness. A conscious world. A world shaped by physics and animated by art, by poetry, by music and mathematics— the different languages we have developed to listen to reality and speak it back to ourselves. Here we are, voicing in these different our fundamental wonderment: What is all this? This byproduct of reality we call life: not probable, not even necessary, and yet it is all we know, because it is all we are, and it is with the whole of what we are that we reckon with reality, that we long to fathom it— from the scale of gluons to the scale of galaxies, from the mystery of the cell to the mystery of the soul.
Every once in a while— perhaps once or twice a century, if we are lucky— atoms shed by dying stars constellate into a living mind so shimmering, so uncommonly gifted in multiple fathoming-languages, that poems and paintings, elegies and equations, theorems and songs spring from it with equal ardor and equal beauty. Rebecca Elson was one. Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) was another— a Nobel-winning physicist, a philosopher, an artist, composer of the world’s most lyrical footnote and most bittersweet love letter, who saw no boundary between knowledge and mystery, between our different modes of fathoming reality and serenading the wonder of the universe that made us. In the autumn of 1955, a decade before he won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work on quantum electrodynamics, Feynman took the podium at the National Academy of Sciences to contemplate the value of science. Midway through his characteristically eloquent and intellectually elegant lecture, addressing the country’s most orthodox audience of academic scientists, he burst into what can best be described as a splendid prose-poem about the mystery and wonder of life, inspired by a reflective moment he spent alone on the edge of the sea, where Rachel Carson too found the meaning of life. It later became the epilogue to Feynman’s final collection of autobiographical reflections, What Do You Care What Other People Think? (public library), published the year of his death.
In this ninth and final installment of the animated Universe in Verse, legendary cellist and Silkroad founder Yo-Yo Ma— one of the most boundlessly curious and wonder-smitten minds I know, who knew Feynman and shares with him a passionate appreciation of science as the native poetry of reality— brings this prose-poem to life in a soulful, symphonic reading with a side of Bach, animated by artist and designer Kelli Anderson (who previously animated Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” at the second annual Universe in Verse in 2018 and Amanda Palmer’s reading of “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich at the third live show in 2019). Radiating from it all— from Feynman’s words, from Yo-Yo’s music, from Kelli’s animation— is what Feynman himself once told Yo-Yo: “Nature has the greatest imagination of all.”
[UNTITLED ODE TO THE WONDER OF LIFE]
by Richard Feynman
I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves… mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business… trillions apart… yet forming white surf in unison.
Ages on ages… before any eyes could see… year after year… thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what?… on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.
Never at rest… tortured by energy… wasted prodigiously by the sun… poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.
Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves… and a new dance starts.
Growing in size and complexity… living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein… dancing a pattern ever more intricate.
Out of the cradle onto the dry land… here it is standing… atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity.
Stands at the sea… wonders at wondering… I… a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.
This post was originally published on The Marginalian. Previously on The Universe in Verse: Chapter 1 (the evolution of flowers and the birth of ecology, with Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the age of space telescopes, with Tracy K. Smith); Chapter 3 (trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell and the poetry of the cosmic perspective, with David Byrne and Pattiann Rogers); Chapter 4 (dark matter and the mystery of our mortal stardust, with Patti Smith and Rebecca Elson); Chapter 5 (a singularity-ode to our primeval bond with nature and each other, starring Toshi Reagon and Marissa Davis); Chapter 6 (Emmy Noether, symmetry, and the conservation of energy, with Amanda Palmer and Edna St. Vincent Millay); Chapter 7 (the science of entropy and the art of alternative endings, with Janna Levin and W.H. Auden); Chapter 8 (nonhuman consciousness and the wonder of octopus intelligence, with Sy Montgomery and Marilyn Nelson).