Song of Two Worlds: Alan Lightman’s Poetic Ode to Science, the Unknown, and Our Search for Meaning, Illustrated by a Teenager in India
By Maria Popova
“You will not concede me philosophical poetry,” Ada Lovelace — the world’s first computer programmer, maverick daughter of the poet Lord Byron — wrote to her mother, a mathematician bent on eradicating the father’s “poetical” influences on the girl. Young Lovelace exhorted: “Invert the order! Will you give me poetical philosophy, poetical science?”
Two centuries later, the physicist, novelist, and essayist Alan Lightman — MIT’s only professor with dual appointment in the sciences and the humanities, and one of the most enchanting writers of our time — furnished the world with a masterwork at the intersection of “poetical philosophy” and “poetical science” in an epic poem exploring life’s largest questions, some answerable and some not: questions about existence and nonexistence, free will, the nature of time and reality, the paradox of nothingness, and the human search for meaning amid an indifferent universe.
Song of Two Worlds was published in 2009 as a small, enormous book, the lyrical profundity of which rippled across the globe. Five years later, Lightman received a letter from Ajai Narendran, a teacher at the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore, India — a longtime fan of Lightman’s, who had assigned the verse book to the students in his “Conceptual Science in Art and Design” class. One of them — an 18-year-old boy named Derek Dominic D’souza, a gifted self-taught artist — had been so inspired by Lightman’s book that he created a series of pen-and-ink drawings in response to the verses. Lightman was in turn so touched by the imaginative splendor of the boy’s drawings that he approached Red Hen Press — an independent publisher devoted to celebrating diverse voices in creative literature — to work together on a special edition of Song of Two World (public library), featuring D’Souza’s art.
Inspired by the Indian philosopher Tagore — who himself explored many of these monumental questions in his famous 1930 conversation with Einstein, the protagonist of Lightman’s first novel — the poem roams across the canon of human knowledge, Western and Eastern, through the existential struggle of its narrator. He is, the reader gathers, a writer who has suffered a great personal tragedy that has rendered him unable to write and is now exiled from his native land, living somewhere in the Middle East, where he is bearing witness to an elderly friend’s passage into nonexistence.
From the vortex of the narrator’s personal experience spins out an expansive inquiry into the nature of reality, synthesizing in verse the legacies of giants like Newton, Galileo, Einstein, Lao Tzu, and Darwin, and paying homage to insufficiently celebrated heroes like physicist Lise Meitner and Persian polymath Omar Khayyam. What emerges is an ode to science as our finest instrument of knowledge, but also an elegy — in the proper sense of lamentation and celebration — for its limitations in the face of questions of meaning, best answered by philosophy and best savored in their unanswerableness by poetry.
It all begins at the boundary of wakefulness and dream, of known and unknown:
What are these quick shots of warmth,
Fractals of forests
That wind through my limbs?
Fragrance of olive and salt taste of skin,
Razz-tazz and clackety sound?
Figures and shapes slowly wheel past my view,
Villas and deserts, distorted faces,
Children, my children —
Distant, the pink moons of my feet.
What rules do they follow?
I think movement, they wondrously move,
Moons flutter and shake.
I probe the hills and the ruts of my face —
Now I grow large, now
I grow small, as the waves
Of sensation break over my shore.
There, a gnarled tree I remember,
A stone vessel, the curve of a hill.
What is the hour?
Some silence still sleeps
In my small sleeping room —
Is it end or beginning?
I take up my pen, dry for some years.
What should I write?
What should I think?
I knock on the door of the universe.
Here, this small villa, this table, this pen.
I ask the universe: What? and Why?
Now weakened, I must remake the world,
One grain at a time.
I knock on the door of the universe, asking:
What makes the light of the stars?
What makes the heat of my flesh?
What makes the tear shape of rain?
So much I’ve lost,
I have nothing
Except a fierce hunger
To fathom this world.
Naked, I knock on the door,
Wearing only my questions.
Great Newton, you hid in your rooms,
Outcast like me,
Careless of meals, stockings untied,
Drinker of rosewater, olive oil, beeswax —
You found the force
Between planets and sun,
Pattern of cosmic attraction,
Heard clearly the music of spheres.
You gauged the distance to stars
And the vast rooms of space,
Which were naught to the space of your mind.
You struck the door of the universe.
What raging night seized you
And screamed that the world
Must be number and rule?
This is the world of the ticking of clocks,
Menses of women and tides
Of the moon. Orbits of planets,
The swing of the pendulum, spin of the earth,
Cycles of seasons.
This is the cosmos of time and of space,
And of light rays that travel twelve billion years,
And the whale-raptured sprawl of the galaxies.
But is this not also the cosmos of life,
That rare cluster of atoms and forms,
A few grains on the beach of nonlife?
One thousand questions, and each gives
An answer, which then forms a question.
The questions and answers will meld with each other
Like colors of light,
Like the light rays that once crossed the space
Of the cosmos
And rest now in the small warmth of a hand.
I knock on the doors of the universe,
Asking: What makes the swirl
Of ghazali love songs?
And the parallel singing of loss?
And the choice to live life alone?
I surrender my calipers, rules, and clocks,
Microscopes, diodes, transistors,
Glass flasks. For how can I measure
The stroke of a passion? Or dissect a grief
With the digits of pi?
Thus, I stand naked, with nothing
Except a fierce hunger to fathom this world,
To embark on this road
Without length without breadth.
Complement Song of Two World, an immensely beautiful invitation to contemplation, with Lightman on science and spirituality and the creative sympathies of art and science, then revisit Hannah Arendt on the crucial difference between truth and meaning and physicist Sean Carroll on how “poetic naturalism” helps us find meaning in an impartial universe.
All illustrations © Derek Dominic D’souza, courtesy of Alan Lightman
Published February 10, 2017