The World’s Most Lyrical Footnote: Physicist Richard Feynman on the Life-Expanding Common Ground Between the Scientific and the Poetic Worldviews
“What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”
By Maria Popova
In looking back on the past year, I keep returning to The Universe in Verse as a singular highlight — that labor-of-love celebration of the common ground between poetry and science, standing as a contemporary testament to Wordsworth’s insistence that “poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge [and] the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.”
While revisiting the readings from the show — poems celebrating the Hubble Space Telescope, the number pi, the legacy of trailblazing scientists like Marie Curie, Jane Goodall, and Caroline Herschel — I was reminded of a marvelous footnote by the Nobel-winning physicist Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988), speaking to the powerful dialogue between the scientific and the poetic worldviews.
In his legendary physics lectures from the early 1960s, Feynman argues that astronomy gave rise to physics by beckoning the human mind to contemplate the beautiful simplicity of celestial motions. “But the most remarkable discovery in all of astronomy,” he writes, “is that the stars are made of atoms of the same kind as those of earth.” (This discovery we owe chiefly to Cecilia Payne.) In a famous footnote to the lecture, quoted in richer context in James Gleick’s indispensable biography Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (public library), Feynman wrests from this one simple, profound fact a beautiful meditation on the role of the poetic in science.
Perhaps with an eye to Whitman’s poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Feynman refutes the notion that a scientific inquiry into physical reality bereaves life of the poetic; to the contrary — any poetry that fails to convey the inherent beauty and enchantment of scientific understanding, he suggests, is the result of an impoverished poetic imagination:
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and 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 a part…. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
Nearly two decades later, Feynman would build on these ideas in his now-iconic reflection known as Ode to a Flower.
Complement with Feynman’s prose poem about the glory of evolution and his remarkable love letter to his departed wife, then revisit some splendid poems celebrating science and the humans who make it: Adrienne Rich’s tribute to women in astronomy and her homage to Marie Curie, Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska’s paean to the number pi, Tracy K. Smith’s ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, Diane Ackerman’s poem about our search for extraterrestrial life, and Pattiann Rogers’s serenade to the glory of single-cell creatures.
Published January 9, 2018