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, 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.
Previously in the series: Chapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, 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).
“Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic.”
By Maria Popova
While the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell was contemplating social change and the life of the mind and her contemporary Walt Whitman was instructing America’s young on what it takes to be an agent of change, on the other side of the globe, the poetic and politically wakeful scientist Peter Kropotkin (December 9, 1842– February 8, 1921) was laying the foundation of a moral revolution while revolutionizing evolutionary biology.
Having grown up in the atmosphere of the European revolutions — that first continent-wide flare of warning that capitalism, with its basic power structure built upon labor-extorted property ownership, is not working for the vast majority of people — Peter (or, rather, Pyotr) was twelve when he renounced the hereditary title Prince. The son of an aristocratic patriarch who owned more than a thousand serfs, this precocious boy saw early and clearly how such staggering inequality foments abuses of power and feeds the worst of the human soul. He felt there must be another way for human beings to live together, felt a deep calling to find it.
At seventeen, Peter fell under Darwin’s spell and found in the dawning evolutionary science a ray of optimism for humanity — assurance that if the world can and does change, so can we; that we are not doomed to social conditions set in stone by some higher power that renders us powerless to evolve morally the way species evolve biologically. When his father withheld the kind of education he hungered for, the young man left for Siberia as an officer, using the military pretext to join geological expeditions and study glaciation — research he eventually published while in prison. He arrived in the tundra ablaze with idealism, with the yearning to change an oppressive system, and left with a lucid awareness that the system was broken beyond structural repair — he had seen the myriad abuses of government power, the corruption, the indifference; he had seen how the peasants governed themselves with a superior knowledge of the land and deep bonds of mutual trust.
Meanwhile, he was translating Voltaire into Russian, dreaming of a life modeled on Humboldt’s, writing a physics primer and a book on how advances in technology will liberate women from domestic drudgery, and diving deeper into evolutionary theory as he made meticulous field observations of the natural world, of how living creatures interacted with one another and with their environment. A century before Jane Goodall, Peter Kropotkin became the first scientist to speak of empathy among non-human animals and to insist, an epoch ahead of Lewis Thomas, that empathic altruism is our natural condition; a century before E.O. Wilson, he studied the extraordinary cooperation networks of social insects and drew from them mutual aid models for human society, culminating in his widely influential 1902 book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. These ideas came to permeate his political writings and activism, for which he was imprisoned in Russia and which, upon his escape, sent him into a four-decade exile in England, Switzerland, and France (where he was also imprisoned).
In periods of frenzied haste toward wealth, of feverish speculation and of crisis, of the sudden downfall of great industries and the ephemeral expansion of other branches of production, of scandalous fortunes amassed in a few years and dissipated as quickly, it becomes evident that the economic institutions which control production and exchange are far from giving to society the prosperity which they are supposed to guarantee; they produce precisely the opposite result. Instead of order they bring forth chaos; instead of prosperity, poverty and insecurity; instead of reconciled interests, war; a perpetual war of the exploiter against the worker, of exploiters and of workers among themselves. Human society is seen to be splitting more and more into two hostile camps, and at the same time to be subdividing into thousands of small groups waging merciless war against each other. Weary of these wars, weary of the miseries which they cause, society rushes to seek a new organization; it clamors loudly for a complete remodeling of the system of property ownership, of production, of exchange and all economic relations which spring from it.
Action, the continuous action, ceaselessly renewed, of minorities brings about this transformation. Courage, devotion, the spirit of sacrifice, are as contagious as cowardice, submission, and panic.
This action, Kropotkin believed, must be undertaken most ardently and purposefully by the young, including the young “in heart and mind” — those unbroken by the current system and therefore best poised for the moral leadership needed to revise it.
In his most widely circulated pamphlet, titled “An Appeal to the Young” and also included in the anthology, he addresses “young men and women of the upper classes” — those chance-born into lives of relative power and privilege, graced with access to good education and the opportunity to develop their natural talents — and exhorts them to put their gifts in the service of making life more livable for others. He writes:
I take it for granted that you have a mind free from the superstition which your teachers have sought to force upon you; that you do not fear the devil, and that you do not go to hear parsons and ministers rant. More, that you are not one of the fops, sad products of a society in decay, who display their well-cut trousers and their monkey faces in the park, and who even at their early age have only an insatiable longing for pleasure at any price… I assume on the contrary that you have a warm heart and for this reason I talk to you.
He proceeds to taxonomize the young into several groups — artists, scientists, lawyers, teachers, technologists — each uniquely suited to a particular contribution to social change. A quarter millennium after Galileo made his immortal case for critical thinking and a century before Carl Sagan composed his classic Baloney Detection Kit, Kropotkin reminds young scientists that the work of critical thinking is never complete and tasks them with seeding the spirit of reason into humanity’s bosom:
By working at science you mean to work for humanity, and this is the idea which will guide you in your investigations. A charming illusion!
More than a century has passed since science laid down sound propositions as to the origin of the universe, but how many have mastered them or possess the really scientific spirit of criticism? A few thousands at the outside, who are lost in the midst of hundreds of millions still steeped in prejudices and superstitions worthy of savages, who are consequently ever ready to serve as puppets for religious impostors… Why? Because science today exists only for a handful of privileged persons, because social inequality, which divides society into two classes — the wage-slaves and the grabbers of capital — renders all its teachings as to the conditions of a rational existence only the bitterest irony to nine-tenths of mankind.
In a sentiment Sagan would echo in celebrating science as a tool of democracy, Kropotkin observes that even more important than making new discoveries is incorporating the truths already discovered into the average person’s fundamental grasp of reality in order to eradicate the biases and superstitions that thwart justice:
The most important thing is to spread the truths already acquired, to practice them in daily life, to make of them a common inheritance. We have to order things in such wise that all humanity may be capable of assimilating and applying them, so that science ceasing to be a luxury becomes the basis of everyday life. Justice requires this… The very interests of science require it. Science only makes real progress when its truths find environments ready prepared for their reception.
With an eye to the long arc of dogma-change — “three generations had to go before the ideas of Erasmus Darwin on the variation of species could be favorably received from his grandson and admitted by academic philosophers, and even then not without pressure from public opinion” — he throws a bold gauntlet at the still-prevalent and lamentably backward notion that working scientists who are also elucidators and enchanters popularizing scientific ideas are somehow, despite being so doubly gifted and thus working doubly hard, lesser scientists:
You will understand that it is important above all to bring about a radical change in this state of affairs which today condemns the philosopher to be crammed with scientific truths, and almost the whole of the rest of human beings to remain what they were five or ten centuries ago, — that is to say, in the state of slaves and machines, incapable of mastering established truths. And the day when you are imbued with wide, deep, humane, and profoundly scientific truth, that day will you lose your taste for pure science. You will set to work to find out the means to effect this transformation… You will make an end of sophisms and you will come among us. Weary of working to procure pleasures for this small group, which already has a large share of them, you will place your information and devotion at the service of the oppressed… You will then find powers in yourself of whose existence you never even dreamed… Then you will enjoy science; that pleasure will be a pleasure for all.
Then, a generation before Rilke composed his Letters to a Young Poet, which remains the single finest packet of advice to artists, Kropotkin turns to the artists:
You, young artist, sculptor, painter, poet, musician, do you not observe that the sacred fire which inspired your predecessors is wanting in the men of today; that art is commonplace and mediocrity reigns supreme?
Could it be otherwise? The delight at having rediscovered the ancient world, of having bathed afresh in the springs of nature which created the masterpieces of the Renaissance no longer exists for the art of our time. The revolutionary ideal has left it cold until now, and failing an ideal, our art fancies that it has found one in realism when it painfully photographs in colors the dewdrop on the leaf of a plant, imitates the muscles in the leg of a cow, or describes minutely in prose and in verse the suffocating filth of a sewer…
What makes art meaningful, what makes it necessary, he intimates, is not increasing fidelity to the real but enduring fidelity to the ideal, to the human spirit in its highest possible manifestation, to the need for its elevation and emancipation commonly called justice — or what James Baldwin considered the artist’s responsibility to society.
Kropotkin especially admonishes young artists against falling into the trap of catering rather than creating — that vital difference Thoreau observed between the artisan and the artist, which often lures the talented into commercially lucrative applications of their gift that leave no lasting mark on humanity, serve no buoy for the human condition:
If… the sacred fire that you say you possess is nothing better than a smouldering wick, then you will go on doing as you have done, and your art will speedily degenerate into the trade of decorator of tradesmen’s shops, of a purveyor of libretti to third-rate operettas and tales for Christmas books… But, if your heart really beats in unison with that of humanity, if like a true poet you have an ear for Life, then, gazing out upon this sea of sorrow whose tide sweeps up around you, face to face with these people dying of hunger, in the presence of these corpses piled up in these mines, and these mutilated bodies lying in heaps on the barricades, in full view of this desperate battle which is being fought, amid the cries of pain from the conquered and the orgies of the victors, of heroism in conflict with cowardice, of noble determination face to face with contemptible cunning — you cannot remain neutral. You will come and take the side of the oppressed because you know that the beautiful, the sublime, the spirit of life itself are on the side of those who fight for light, for humanity, for justice!
No matter your particular gift, Kropotkin argues, it is only by such devotion to the higher aims of justice that your life grows animated by “a vast and most enthralling task, a work in which your actions will be in complete harmony with your conscience, an undertaking capable of rousing the noblest and most vigorous natures.”
This, after all, is the secret to a purposeful and gratifying life — that sacred harmonic where your native gift meets the world’s need and begins to sing.
The “blind intelligence” by which a tree orients to the light in order to survive is a kind of hard-wired sentience, intricate and interconnected and aglow with wonder we are only just beginning to discover. But it is not consciousness as we understand it — that miraculous emergent phenomenon arising somewhere along the spectrum of sentience to endow creatures with the ability not only to be aware of our surroundings, not only to react to them with automated actions, but to respond to them with some measure of foresight, which presupposes some measure of hindsight, which in turn presupposes some measure of self-awareness, which culminates in qualia — the set of subjective experience that is the central fact of consciousness, the fundament of our lives.
For the vast majority of the evolutionary history of our species, we have assumed that humans alone have consciousness. Descartes, who so greatly leapt the scientific method forward by pioneering empiricism, also paralyzed our understanding of the mind with his dogmatic declamation that non-human animals are automata — fleshy robots governed by mechanistic reflexes, insentient and incapable of feeling. It took four centuries for this dogma to be upended after a young primatologist began her paradigm-shifting work in Gombe National Forest in 1960. Despite the tidal wave of dismissal and derision from the scientific establishment, Jane Goodall persisted, revolutionizing our understanding of consciousness and of our place in the family of life.
More than half a century later, some of the world’s leading neuroscientists composed and co-signed the Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness, asserting that a vast array of non-human animals are also endowed with consciousness. The list named only one invertebrate species.
The octopus branched from our shared vertebrate lineage some 550 million years ago to evolve into one of this planet’s most alien intelligences, endowed with an astonishing distributed nervous system and capable of recognizing others, of forming social bonds, of navigating mazes. It is the Descartes of the oceans, learning how to live in its environment by trial and error — that is, by basic empiricism.
Meanwhile, in those 550 million years, we evolved into creatures that placed themselves at the center of the universe and atop the evolutionary ladder, only to find ourselves in an ecological furnace of our making and to reluctantly consider that we might not, after all, be the pinnacle of Earthly intelligence.
That is what Marilyn Nelson explores with great playfulness and poignancy in her poem “Octopus Empire,” originally published in the Academy of American Poets’ poem-a-day lifeline of a newsletter and now brought to life here, for this seventh installment in the animated Universe in Verse, in a reading by Sy Montgomery (author of the enchantment of a book that is The Soul of an Octopus) with life-filled art by Edwina White, set into motion by her collaborator James Dunlap, and set into soulfulness by Brooklyn-based cellist and composer Topu Lyo.
OCTOPUS EMPIRE by Marilyn Nelson
What if the submarine
is praying for a way
it can poison the air,
in which some of them have
leaped for a few seconds,
felt its suffocating
Something floats above their
known world leading a wake
of uncountable death.
What if they organized
into a rebellion?
Now scientists have found
a group of octopuses
who seem to have a sense
of community, who
live in dwellings made of
gathered pebbles and shells,
who cooperate, who
defend an apparent
border. Perhaps they’ll have
a plan for the planet
in a millennium
or two. After we’re gone.
Previously in the series: Chapter 1 (the evolution of life and the birth of ecology, with Joan As Police Woman and Emily Dickinson); Chapter 2 (Henrietta Leavitt, Edwin Hubble, and the human hunger to know the cosmos, 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).
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“Time renders most individual moments meaningless… but it is only through the passage of time that life acquires its meaning. And that meaning itself is constantly in flux.”
By Maria Popova
In her 1942 book Philosophy in a New Key, the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer defined music as “a laboratory for feeling and time.” But perhaps it is the opposite, too — music may be the most beautiful experiment conducted in the laboratory of time.
In “the wordless beginning,” spacetime itself was crumpled and compacted into that spitball of everythingness we call the singularity. Even if sound could exist then — it did not, of course, because sound is made of matter — it would have existed all at once. Infinite numbers of every possible note would have been ringing at the same time — the antithesis of music. It is only because this single point of totality was stretched into a line that time was born and, suddenly, there was continuity. Suddenly, one moment became distinguishable from another — the strange gift of entropy, which makes it possible to have melody and rhythm, chords and harmonies.
Music sculpts time. Indeed, it is a structuring of time, as a layered arrangement of audible temporal events. Rhythm is at the heart of that arrangement, on every scale: the cycling and patterning of repeated sound or movement and the “measured flow” that that repetition creates. The most fundamental rhythm is the beat itself, the pulse that occurs at regular intervals and thus dictates the tempo, keeps musical time. In music, a beat is no fixed thing — it can quicken into smaller intervals (accelerando) and stretch out into longer ones (decelerando), depending on the character of a given musical moment and the feeling or fancy of the performer — but it does remain periodic, predictable, inexorable. Even at the level of pitch, which is really the speed of a given sound wave’s oscillation, we are really hearing the rhythmic demarcation of time, a tiny heart whirring at a beat of x cycles per second.
Yet in every piece of music there are also higher temporal structures at play. Repetition begets pattern, and pattern engenders form, at every scale; thus musical form itself constitutes a macro-rhythm, a pattern of alternations that move the listener through time.
Our minds structure time through the detection of patterns and the predictive anticipation of recurring elements. But although this cognitive function unfolds unconsciously, it is not mechanistic, not robotic, but a vital pulse-beat of our humanity, vibrating with the neural harmonics of emotion, suffused with feeling — for all anticipation is a form of hope and all hope can be shattered or redeemed, taking our hearts along with it. Ever since Pythagoras revolutionized the mathematical structure of music by composing the world’s first algorithm, musicians have been deliberately breaking the buildup of patterns or triumphantly completing them in order to orchestrate an emotional response — the sorrow of unmet hope, the elated relief of its redemption.
With an eye to the basic chord progression, rooted in a tonic, and the satisfying resolution of a rondo, revolving around a circular theme, Hodges writes:
Such patterns, formal and harmonic, relate their components to one another in time. The ear can sense the harmonies to come based on the relative intensities of those that came before, or when thematic material will return by the buildup of a cadence at the end of a development section or variation. It is through this higher sense of rhythm, then, that a simple phrase or a complex form becomes a temporal object: time molded in order to manipulate emotion, putting you through the changes of the present only to bring you back to the past, locating you in a moment that is simultaneously familiar and wholly new.
In my native Bulgaria, the tonal tradition rests upon a pattern dramatically different from that of Western music and its twelve-tone scale. (This is why a Bulgarian folk song was encoded among the handful of sounds representing Earth on the Golden Record that sailed aboard the Voyager in humanity’s most poetic reach for making contact with the cosmos.) But while these underlying structures differ across cultures and epochs, music’s reliance on such patterns for its emotional effect is universal. Hodges observes:
The music of all cultures, each with its own unique rules to be followed and broken, both weaves and rends the tapestry of audible time. Our experience of musical temporality, like our experience of the day-to-day, consists of patterns of recurrence and, sooner or later, their violation.
Yet musical time differs from the quotidian passage of ordinary time, even as it exists within that passage. Or, at least, it manifests how susceptible time is to our conscious perception, as much as the other way around.
Duration is not time — that is something different entirely, something utterly dependent on our perception… The malleability of our perception of time is the stuff of music itself. The concept of passage, the way we generally conceptualize time — seconds elapse into minutes, today becomes tomorrow — is of getting through from one thing to another. In music, time is inseparable from sound itself. A piece of music is a multidimensional entity, a creation molded from time’s clay.
In a passage that affirms anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson’s wonderfully apt word-choice for how we become who we are — by “composing a life” — Hodges returns to the elemental matter of music:
Time renders most individual moments meaningless, or at least less important than they originally seemed, but it is only through the passage of time that life acquires its meaning. And that meaning itself is constantly in flux; we are always making it up and then revising as we go along, ordering and reordering our understanding of the past in real time.
Form, in music, is inherently temporal. It gives some shape to time, or at least designates the pace and manner at which we move through a particular piece. Where do we fare forward or cycle back; which moments expand, and which contract? Likewise, memory — that most universal and yet individual of temporal structures — lends form and shape to experience in biographical time. We inhabit simultaneous, concentric timescales: the time line of the past coiled within the immediacy of the present moment unfolding. Memory creates a metonymic congruence between them, melding past with present in such a way that our former selves move forward with us in time.
Implicit in time’s asymmetry, then, is the notion of becoming. The universe unspools itself toward a state of higher entropy; its edges fray, its dust is swept into corners, and this process of degradation and erosion is what separates the future from the past. We think of “becoming” as moving toward something final, evolving into a more perfect and more stable state over time. Yet, by proceeding forward in time, that very process must involve itself in the increasing disorder of the universe. When we seek to become something or someone else, to change our lives and leave the past behind, we necessarily abandon ourselves to entropy: We scatter old pieces of ourselves, willfully smudge our edges and make a mess of things, strive to break free of old symmetries that we feel can no longer contain us. Or, perhaps, that very instinct to change ourselves is a kind of preemptive embrace of the chaos we know is to come, a sign that we have already begun to spin out of control, that time is passing and taking us along with it and that soon nothing will be as it once was.
It’s a strange feeling, beautiful but also eerie: not only that you can step into time’s flow, but that you are the flow itself. I suppose at the heart of that feeling, too, lies the real trouble with time: the terrifying prospect that if time is so subjective, then we are necessarily alone in our unique experience of it. But isn’t it because time lives in us that we can shape it, sculpt it into phrases and cadences and giros and ochos; still it if not stop it, bend it if not vanquish it. And share it.