The Physicist and the Poet

I mentioned in one of my posts about Richard Feynman and how it would take a whole series of posts to do the man any justice as a scientist, as a man or as a teacher. So maybe I should act upon that and post about him some more. Today I want to share something I discovered about a week month two months ago buried in a footnote in a book.

It’s just an aside in one of the later chapters of Six Easy Pieces – one of a series of popular science books taken from Feynman’s public lectures on Physics. I won’t talk about the lectures themselves, although they’re absolutely excellent as further reading as a non-scientist. They’re also completely sublime as a trained Physicist, reading these books and realising that in so many casual statements, Feynman lays bare the whole of the profession for anyone to see. But I digress! This is just a small aside – a footnote! But this particular extract moves me, as a scientist and nerd, so deeply that I felt it needed a whole post. Here it is, a footnote made after Feynman makes the statement “The stars are made of the same atoms as the Earth”;

How I’m rushing through this! How much each sentence in this brief story contains! “The stars are made of the same atoms as the Earth” – I usually pick one small topic like this to give a lecture on.

Poets say that science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and I feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one million year old light. A vast pattern – of which I am part – perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvellous is the truth than any artist of the past imagined! Why do poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter as if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

I think the reason this struck me was that it addresses a long term worry that I and other scientists feel about the perception of science to the general public. Most of the time I feel that people just don’t care – they don’t understand the real meaning and beauty of science and how it reveals amazing things about the world. Nor do they seem to want to! But the general public believes it’s eminently qualified to say that science is boring, or irrelevant – and how can that be true, or justified? The digression here is a reaction to that – and a very satisfying one indeed! It’s almost an outburst – how can these people not want to understand? – that I’ve felt like making time and time again.

But more than that, the real elegance of this is in the way that Feynman’s typical style is so obvious here. Just look at the quote again – he’s made this huge complaint about poets not talking about or understanding science and then given the solution at the same time. The very complaint is phrased so dramatically and flows so well that it might be called a poem itself! This is completely typical of Feynman’s style – he always seems to phrase a question such that the answer he arrives at seems impossibly self-evident. In fact, it’s been commented that Feynman made a habit of knowing the answer before asking a question.

Ultimately, I love the way Feynman so neatly expressed something that resonates through the years about science and its appreciation – it’s something you do or you don’t, and I can’t understand anyone not even trying.

If I’m intellectually honest here, I have to mention those peculiar people who seem determined to drag the population into the light and make them see the wonder. I talk – of course – of the outreach community. They’re an interesting bunch; some people want to talk about science juse because they love it (like me), some people seem to think it’s a duty or a responsibility. Yet others appear to like both science and people enough to want to share that joy with others. In particular, I’m thinking of people like Jim Al-Khalili, Brian Cox, Ben Goldacre and Robin Ince; the kind of people who make science accessible to the masses because they represent both. I healthily admire those people, and perhaps one day they will make Feynman’s monologue redundant. In the meantime, I’ll keep repeating my favourite part;

Nothing is “mere”.

About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
This entry was posted in Et cetera, General Science, Physics. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Physicist and the Poet

  1. Reliq says:

    Very nice post. He makes a very similar point here:

    The thing about Feynman is: he wasn’t just a scientist. Yes, he did amazing science, and make some great discoveries, influenced generations of physicists, and the study of physics – but he was, really, an artist. He viewed the world through his own peep-hole, and saw the beauty in things beyond their elemental makeup, or even merely their aesthetic beauty. He approached the world as something to be immersed in.

    And he played the bongos.

    • stoove says:

      I think one thing that’s often not easy to get across is the idea that, at its heart, Science *is* an art! It’s got the same core values as any art you care to name – it’s just something that’s less obvious to appreciate than many other forms of art. (In fact, it’s the only art I can think of where people pay to have it published, gain no money from the act of publishing, and the publisher still charges people to view it!)

      The thing is – ALL scientists see the beauty of things. That’s why we do it, it’s why we are so motivated to keep on doing it. Alas, we don’t all play the bongos 😥

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