Watch a New Animation of Richard Feynman’s Ode to the Wonder of Life, with Music by Yo-Yo Ma

…I would like not to under­es­ti­mate the val­ue of the world view which is the result of sci­en­tif­ic effort. We have been led to imag­ine all sorts of things infi­nite­ly more mar­velous than the imag­in­ings of poets and dream­ers of the past.

- Richard Feyn­man

In 1955, the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Richard Feyn­man gave a talk on the val­ue of sci­ence to mem­bers of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences at at Cal­tech Uni­ver­si­ty.

In the wake of the destruc­tion of Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki, his involve­ment with the Man­hat­tan Project had been cause for seri­ous depres­sion and soul search­ing.

He con­clud­ed that the pur­suit of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge remained valu­able to soci­ety, even though such knowl­edge comes with­out oper­at­ing instruc­tions, and thus can be put to evil pur­pos­es.

In the Cal­tech speech, he cit­ed the life improv­ing tech­no­log­i­cal and med­ical break­throughs that are the result of sci­en­tif­ic explo­rations, as well as the sci­en­tif­ic field­’s alle­giance to the con­cept that we must be free to dis­sent, ques­tion, and dis­cuss:

If we sup­press all dis­cus­sion, all crit­i­cism, pro­claim­ing “This is the answer, my friends; man is saved!” we will doom human­i­ty for a long time to the chains of author­i­ty, con­fined to the lim­its of our present imag­i­na­tion.

(This strikes a pro­found chord in 2022, remem­ber­ing how some extreme­ly vocal politi­cians and cit­i­zens took chang­ing pub­lic health man­dates as evi­dence of con­spir­a­cy, rather than an ever-deep­en­ing sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing of how an unfa­mil­iar virus was oper­at­ing.)

Any child with an inter­est in STEM will be grat­i­fied to learn that Feyn­man also found much to admire in “the fun …which some peo­ple get from read­ing and learn­ing and think­ing about (sci­ence), and which oth­ers get from work­ing in it.

Through­out his speech, he refrained from tech­ni­cal jar­gon, using lan­guage that those whose pas­sions skew more toward the arts can under­stand to invoke the expe­ri­ence of sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery.

His med­i­ta­tions con­cern­ing the inter­con­nect­ed­ness between every mol­e­cule “stu­pid­ly mind­ing its own busi­ness” and every­thing else in the known uni­verse, includ­ing him­self, a human stand­ing beside the sea, try­ing to make sense of it all, is of a piece with Shake­speare and Walt Whit­man.

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 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

The Mar­gin­a­lian’s (for­mer­ly Brain Pick­ings) Maria Popo­va seizes on this inter­lude for the final install­ment of her video series, The Uni­verse in Verse, above, col­lab­o­rat­ing with ani­ma­tor Kel­li Ander­son on a “per­spec­tive-broad­en­ing, mind-deep­en­ing” visu­al inter­pre­ta­tion of Feynman’s excerpt­ed remarks.

Flow­ing under and around Feynman’s nar­ra­tion is an orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion by cel­list Yo-Yo Ma, whose renown in the field of music is on par with Feynman’s in physics, and who notes in the intro­duc­tion to The Quotable Feyn­man:

While he paid close atten­tion to prob­lems we face and gen­er­ate, he also knew that humans are a sub­set of nature, and nature held for him the great­est fas­ci­na­tion — for the imag­i­na­tion of nature is far, far greater than the imag­i­na­tion of man, and nature guards her secrets jeal­ous­ly.

Read Feynman’s com­plete speech to the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences at at Cal­tech Uni­ver­si­ty here.

Watch all nine chap­ters of The Uni­verse in Verse here.

via The Mar­gin­a­lian

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The “Feyn­man Tech­nique” for Study­ing Effec­tive­ly: An Ani­mat­ed Primer

Richard Feynman’s “Lost Lec­ture:” An Ani­mat­ed Retelling

Richard Feynman’s “Note­book Tech­nique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

Richard Feynman’s Tech­nique for Learn­ing Some­thing New: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Is Now Com­plete­ly Online

What Ignit­ed Richard Feynman’s Love of Sci­ence Revealed in an Ani­mat­ed Video

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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