The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics: Sean Ono Lennon Reads Nobel-Winning Chemist and Poet Roald Hoffmann’s Ode to Entropy
By Maria Popova
“We must be less than death to be lessened by it — for nothing is irrevocable but ourselves,” Emily Dickinson wrote of what she so stunningly termed “the drift called the infinite.” And yet we are, of course, less than death — we are inherently revocable, for death is the sole inevitability of life. For Dickinson, the irrevocability of human life was to be found in the living — in the truth and beauty we cast ourselves upon, in the loves we love. Amid a culture of extreme piousness, she rejected traditional religion and was only a child when she came to doubt the immortality so resolutely promised by the Calvinist dogma of her elders. Soon, she would write in her love letters to Susan Gilbert: “Sermons on unbelief ever did attract me.” In a poem, she would proclaim that “Faith is Doubt.” A century before Simone de Beauvoir asserted that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly,” Dickinson intuited that religion’s claims of immortality don’t comport with the nature of existence, which inclines always and without exception toward nonexistence — a fact as true on the scale of the individual as it is on the scale of the species and the Solar System and even the universe itself: In another four billion years — just about as long as our planet has so far existed — our sun will live out its final moments in a wild spin before collapsing into a white dwarf, its exhale bending spacetime itself into a well of nothingness that can swallow every atom that ever touched us and every poem we ever made — an entropic spectacle devoid of why.
A century after Dickinson drifted into the infinite, another poet — perhaps more improbable, yet all the more insightful for his particular strain of improbability — suspended this eternal subject between poetic truth and scientific fact. In a poem titled “The Devil Teaches Thermodynamics,” the Nobel-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann — one of those rare working scientists who are also literary artists — addresses the human longing for permanence, and religion’s illusory assurances thereof, in a universe we know to be governed by impermanence and entropy.
Published in Hoffmann’s book Chemistry Imagined: Reflections on Science (public library) — that unusual cross-genre, cross-disciplinary beauty featuring art by Vivian Torrence and a preface by Carl Sagan — the poem came alive at the second annual Universe in Verse in this charming and touching reading by musician and friend-of-science Sean Ono Lennon:
THE DEVIL TEACHES THERMODYNAMICS
by Roald Hoffmann
My second law, your second law, ordains
that local order, structures in space
and time, be crafted in ever-so-losing
contention with proximal disorder in
this neat but getting messier universe.
And we, in the intricate machinery of our
healthy bodies and life-support systems,
in the written and televised word do declare
the majesty of the zoning ordinances
of this Law. But oh so smart, we think
that we are not things, like weeds,
or rust, or plain boulders, and so
invent a reason for an eternal subsidy
of our perfection, or at least perfectibility,
give it the names of God or the immortal
soul. And while we allow the dissipations
that cannot be hid, like death, and — in literary
stances — even the end of love, we make
the others just plain evil: anger, lust,
pride — the whole lot of pimples of the spirit.
Diseases need vectors, so the old call
goes out for me. But the kicker is that the struts
of God’s stave church, those nice seven,
they’re such a tense and compressed support
group that when they get through you’re really
ready to let off some magma. Faith serves up
passing certitude to weak minds, recruits for
the cults, and too much of her is going to play
hell with that other grand invention
of yours, the social contract. Boring
Prudence hangs around with conservatives,
and Love, love you say! Love one, leave
out the others. Love them all, none will love
you. I tell you, friends, love is the greatest
entropy-increasing device invented by God.
Love is my law’s sweet man. And for God
himself, well, his oneness seems too
much for natural man to love, so he comes
up with Northern Irelands and Lebanons…
The argument to be made is not
for your run-of-the-mill degeneracy, my
stereotype. No, I want us to awake,
join the imperfect universe at peace with
the disorder that orders. For the cold
death sets in slowly, and there is time,
so much time, for the stars’ light to scatter
off the eddies of chance, into our minds,
there to build ever more perfect loves,
invisible cities, our own constellations.
For other highlights from The Universe in Verse — the show I host each spring at Pioneer Works, celebrating science and reason through poetry and beauty — savor astrophysicist Janna Levin reading Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity, Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson, poet Marie Howe reading her stirring tribute to Stephen Hawking, science historian James Gleick reading Elizabeth Bishop’s profound poem about the nature of knowledge, U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reading her ode to the Hubble Space Telescope, and Rosanne Cash reading Adrienne Rich’s homage to Marie Curie.
Published February 26, 2019