A universe of atoms, an atom in the universe

Maybe I’m thinking too deeply for a Monday, but last week’s blog on science as art and a few too many museum outings had me contemplating the beauty of discovery all weekend. The great physicist Richard Feynman (of QED, Los Alamos, space shuttle, strip clubs and bongo drum fame), was enamored with the pure joy of finding things out. Feynman believed the beauty of science could outweigh what any poet or painter might ever imagine about the world. The deeper our knowledge of any question, the greater our enjoyment can be, he thought. And he had a way of taking this child-like fascination with the world around him and turning it into scientific discovery.

Feynman’s Nobel Prize came from watching someone throw a spinning dinner plate in the Cornell cafeteria. Feynman noticed a relationship between the wobble of the plate and the rate of its spin, he worked out the equations for wobbles and eventually applied them to the spin of electrons. The implications for QED were profound and he received a Nobel for “deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles.”

This playful fascination with the way things work made Feynman uncomfortable with the non-scientific world’s view of science. The world is concerned with the use of things-what new cure or convenience will this discovery bring? Journalists express the weight of a discovery in terms of its utility, not in terms of the idea. His best example of this is that the radioactive phosphorus content in a rat’s brain degrades by one-half in a period of two weeks.

A journalist would express such a find in terms of implications-this might help lead to a cure for cancer. But the underlying beauty is in the idea of the thing. A scientific appreciation for the concept itself leads to a far more enticing conclusion; the molecules in your brain are constantly being replaced. You have memories from years ago, and yet the molecules in your brain are new. Such an idea tugs at the nature of consciousness. If our body is made up of different parts then it was years ago, what makes us who we are?

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 dry land
here it is
atoms with consciousness;
matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea,
wonders at wondering: I
a universe of atoms
an atom in the universe.

Richard P. Feynman

“The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out – there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.” –Feynman, from What do you care what other people think? (1988)

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