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

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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.

Space Sex is Serious Business: A Hilarious Short Animation Addresses Serious Questions About Human Reproduction in Space

Back in the late 80s, there was a rumor floating around that Earth Girls Are Easy.

40 some years of scientific and social advancement have shifted the conversational focus.

We’re just now beginning to understand that Space Sex is Serious Business.

Particularly if SpaceX CEO Elon Musk achieves his goal of establishing a permanent human presence on Mars.

Surely at some point in their long travels to and residence on Mars, those pioneers would get down to business in much the same way that rats, fruit flies, parasitic wasps, and Japanese rice fish have while under observation on prior space expeditions.


Meanwhile, we’re seriously lacking in human data.

A pair of human astronauts, Jan Davis and Mark Lee, made history in 1992 as the first married couple to enter space together, but NASA insisted their relations remained strictly professional for the duration, and that a shuttle’s crew compartment is too small for the sort of antics a nasty-minded public kept asking about.

In an interview with Mens Health, Colonel Mike Mullane, a veteran of three space missions, confirmed that a spacecraft’s layout doesn’t favor romance:

The only privacy would have been in the air lock, but everybody would know what you were doing. You’re not out there doing a spacewalk. There’s no reason to be in there.

Shortly after Davis and Lee returned to earth, NASA formalized an unspoken rule prohibiting husbands and wives from venturing into space together. It did little to squelch public interest in space sex.

One wonders if NASA’s rule has been rewritten in accordance with the times. Air lock aside, might same sex couples remain free to swing what hetero-normative marrieds (arguably) cannot?

This is but one of hundreds of space sex questions begging further consideration.

Some of the most serious are raised in Tom McCarten’s witty collage animation for FiveThirtyEight, above.

Namely how damaging will cosmic radiation and microgravity prove to human reproduction? As more humans toy with the possibility of leaving Earth, this question feels less and less hypothetical.

Maggie KoerthBaker, who researched and narrates the animated short, notes that Musk portrayed the risks of radiation as minor during a presentation at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, and breathed not a peep as to the effects of microgravity.

Yet scientific studies of non-human space travelers document a host of reproductive issues including lowered libido, atypical hormone levels, ovulatory dysfunction, miscarriages, and fetal mutations.

On its webpage, NASA provides some information about the Reproduction, Development, and Sex Differences Laboratory of its Space Biosciences Research Branch, but remains mum on topics of pressing concern to, say, students in a typical middle school sex ed class.

Like achieving and maintaining erections in microgravity.

In Physiology News Magazine, Dr. Adam Watkins, associate professor of Reproductive and Developmental Physiology at the University of Nottingham, suggests that internal and external atmospheric changes would make such things, pardon the pun, hard:

Firstly, just staying in close contact with each other under zero gravity is hard. Secondly, as astronauts experience lower blood pressure while in space, maintaining erections and arousal are more problematic than here on Earth. 

The exceptionally forthright Col Mullane has some contradictory first hand experience that should come as a relief to all humankind:

A couple of times, I would wake up from sleep periods and I had a boner that I could have drilled through kryptonite.

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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.

‘The Character of Physical Law’: Richard Feynman’s Legendary Course Presented at Cornell, 1964

Lecture One, The Law of Gravitation:

“Nature,” said physicist Richard Feynman, “uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”

With those words Feynman ended the first of his famous 1964 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University, a talk entitled “The Law of Gravitation, an Example of Physical Law.” (See above.) The lectures were intended by Feynman as an introduction, not to the fundamental laws of nature, but to the very nature of such laws. The lectures were later transcribed and collected in The Character of Physical Law, one of Feynman’s most widely read books. In the introduction to the Modern Library edition, writer James Gleick gives a brief assessment of the charismatic man at the lectern:

Feynman, then forty-six years old, did theoretical physics as spectacularly as anyone alive. He was due to win the Nobel Prize the next year for his groundbreaking work in the 1940s in quantum electrodynamics, a theory that tied together in an experimentally perfect package all the varied phenomena at work in light, radio, magnetism, and electricity. He had taken the century’s early, half-made conceptions of waves and particles and shaped them into tools that ordinary physicists could use and understand. This was esoteric science–more so in the decades that followed–and Feynman was not a household name outside physics, but within his field he had developed an astounding stature. He had a mystique that came in part from sheer pragmatic brilliance–in any group of scientists he could create a dramatic impression by slashing his way through a difficult problem–and in part, too, from his personal style–rough-hewn, American, seemingly uncultivated.

All seven of Feynman’s lectures were recorded by the British Broadcasting Corporation and presented as part of BBC Two’s “Further Education Scheme.” In 2009 Bill Gates bought the rights to the videos and made them available to the public on Microsoft’s Project Tuva Web site.


Since then the series has become available on YouTube for easier viewing. As you scroll down the page you can access the videos which, “more than any other recorded image or document,” writes physicist Lawrence Krauss in Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, “capture the real Feynman, playful, brilliant, excited, charismatic, energetic, and no nonsense.”

You can find the remaining video lectures below:

Lecture Two, The Relation of Mathematics to Physics:

Lecture Three, The Great Conservation Principles:

Lecture Four, Symmetry in Physical Law:

Lecture Five, The Distinction of Past and Future:

Lecture Six, Probability and Uncertainty–The Quantum Mechanical View of Nature:

Lecture Seven, Seeking New Laws:

You can find this course indexed in our list of Free Online Physics Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Albert Einstein in Four Color Films

We all think we know just what Albert Einstein looked like — and broadly speaking, we’ve got it right. At least since his death in 1955, since which time generation after generation of children around the world have grown up closely associating his bristly mustache and semi-tamed gray hair with the very concept of scientific genius. His sartorial rumpledness and Teutonically hangdog look have long been the stuff of not just caricature, but (as in Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance) earnest tribute as well. Yet how many of us can say we’ve really taken a good look at Einstein?

These four pieces of film get us a little closer to that experience. At the top of the post we have a colorized newsreel clip (you can see the original here) showing Einstein in his office at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he took up a post in 1933.


Even earlier colorized newsreel footage appears in the video just above, taken from an episode of the Smithsonian Channel series America in Color. It depicts Einstein arriving in the United States in 1930, by which time he was already “the world’s most famous physicist” — a position then meriting a welcome not unlike that which the Beatles would receive 34 years later.

Einstein returned to his native Germany after that visit. The America in Color clip also shows him back at his cottage outside Berlin (and in his pajamas), but his time back in his homeland amounted only to a few years. The reason: Hitler. During Einstein’s visiting professorship at Cal Tech in 1933, the Gestapo raided his cottage and Berlin apartment, as well as confiscated his sailboat. Later the Nazi government banned Jews from holding official positions, including at universities, effectively cutting off his professional prospects and those of no few other German citizens besides. The 1943 color footage above offers a glimpse of Einstein a decade into his American life.

A couple of years thereafter, the end of the Second World War made Einstein even more famous. He became, in the minds of many Americans, the brilliant physicist who “helped discover the atom bomb.” So declares the announcer in that first newsreel, but in the decades since, the public has come to associate Einstein more instinctively with his theory of relativity — an achievement less immediately comprehensible than the apocalyptic explosion of the atomic bomb, but one whose scientific implications run much deeper. Many clear and lucid précis of Einstein’s theory exist, but why not first see it explained by the man himself, and in color at that?

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

See Every Nuclear Explosion in History: 2153 Blasts from 1945-2015

There have been more than 2,000 nuclear explosions in all of history — which, in the case of the technology required to detonate a nuclear explosion, goes back only 76 years. It all began, according to the animated video above, on July 16, 1945, with the nuclear device code-named Trinity. The fruit of the labors of the Manhattan Project, its explosion famously brought to the mind of theoretical physicist Robert J. Oppenhemier a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” But however revelatory a spectacle Trinity provided, it turned out merely to be the overture of the nuclear age.

Created by Ehsan Rezaie of Orbital Mechanics, the video offers a simple-looking but deceptively information-rich presentation of every nuclear explosion that has so far occurred. It belongs to a perhaps unlikely but nevertheless decisively established genre, the animated nuclear-explosion time-lapse, of which we’ve previously featured examples from Business Insider’s Alex Kuzoian and artist Isao Hasimoto here on Open Culture.


The size of each circle that erupts on the world map indicates the relative power of the explosion in its location (all information also provided in the scrolling text on the lower left); those detonated underground appear in yellow, those detonated underwater in blue, and those detonated in the atmosphere in red.

Trinity created an atmospheric explosion above New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto desert. (Otherwise Oppenheimer wouldn’t have been able to witness it change the world.) So did Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs dropped on Japan in World War II. Those remain the only detonations of nuclear weapons in combat, and thus the nuclear explosions everyone knows, but they, too, represent only the beginning. As the Cold War sets in, something of a testing volley emerges between the United States and the Soviet Union, culminating in the colossal red dot of 1961’s Tsar Bomba, still the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested. With the USSR long gone today, the explosions have only slowed. But in recent years, as the data on which this video is based indicates, nuclear testing has turned into a one-player game — and that player is North Korea.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Italian Physicist Laura Bassi Became the First Woman to Have an Academic Career in the 18th Century

The practice and privilege of academic science has been slow in trickling down from its origins as a pursuit of leisured gentleman. While many a leisured lady may have taken an interest in science, math, or philosophy, most women were denied participation in academic institutions and scholarly societies during the scientific revolution of the 1700s. Only a handful of women — seven known in total — were granted doctoral degrees before the year 1800. It wasn’t until 1678 that a female scholar was given the distinction, some four centuries or so after the doctorate came into being. While several intellectuals and even clerics of the time held progressive attitudes about gender and education, they were a decided minority.

Curiously, four of the first seven women to earn doctoral degrees were from Italy, beginning with Elena Cornaro Piscopia at the University of Padua. Next came Laura Bassi, who earned her degree from the University of Bologna in 1732. There she distinguished herself in physics, mathematics, and natural philosophy and became the first salaried woman to teach at a university (she was at one time the university’s highest paid employee). Bassi was the chief popularizer of Newtonian physics in Italy in the 18th century and enjoyed significant support from the Archbishop of Bologna, Prospero Lambertini, who — when he became Pope Benedict XIV — elected her as the 24th member of an elite scientific society called the Benedettini.


“Bassi was widely admired as an excellent experimenter and one of the best teachers of Newtonian physics of her generation,” says Paula Findlen, Stanford professor of history. “She inspired some of the most important male scientists of the next generation while also serving as a public example of a woman shaping the nature of knowledge in an era in which few women could imagine playing such a role.” She also played the role available to most women of the time as a mother of eight and wife of Giuseppe Veratti, also a scientist.

Bassi was not allowed to teach classes of men at the university — only special lectures open to the public. But in 1740, she was granted permission to lecture at her home, and her fame spread, as Findlen writes at Physics World:

 Bassi was widely known throughout Europe, and as far away as America, as the woman who understood Newton. The institutional recognition that she received, however, made her the emblematic female scientist of her generation. A university graduate, salaried professor and academician (a member of a prestigious academy), Bassi may well have been the first woman to have embarked upon a full-fledged scientific career.

Poems were written about Bassi’s successes in demonstrating Newtonian optics; “news of her accomplishments traveled far and wide,” reaching the ear of Benjamin Franklin, whose work with electricity Bassi followed keenly. In Bologna, surprise at Bassi’s achievements was tempered by a culture known for “celebrating female success.” Indeed, the city was “jokingly known as a ‘paradise for women,’” writes Findlen. Bassi’s father was determined that she have an education equal to any of her class, and her family inherited money that had been equally divided between daughters and sons for generations; her sons “found themselves heirs to the property that came to the family through Laura’s maternal line,” notes the Stanford University collection of Bassi’s personal papers.

Bassi’s academic work is held at the Academy of Sciences in Bologna. Of the papers that survive, “thirteen are on physics, eleven are on hydraulics, two are on mathematics, one is on mechanics, one is on technology, and one is on chemistry,” writes a University of St. Andrew’s biography. In 1776, a year usually remembered for the formation of a government of leisured men across the Atlantic, Bassi was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at Bologna, an appointment that not only meant her husband became her assistant, but also that she became the “first woman appointed to a chair of physics at any university in the world.”

Bologna was proud of its distinguished daughter, but perhaps still thought of her as an oddity and a token. As Dr. Eleonora Adami notes in a charming biography at sci-fi illustrated stories, the city once struck a medal in her honor, “commemorating her first lecture series with the phrase ‘Soli cui fas vidisse Minervam,’” which translates roughly to “the only one allowed to see Minerva.” But her example inspired other women, like Cristina Roccati, who earned a doctorate from Bologna in 1750, and Dorothea Erxleben, who became the first woman to earn a Doctorate in Medicine four years later at the University of Halle. Such singular successes did not change the patriarchal culture of academia, but they started the trickle that would in time become several branching streams of women succeeding in the sciences.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch an Exquisite 19th Century Coffee Maker in Action

Pourover

Cold brew

Single origin

Coffee snobbery may seem like a recent phenomenon, but the quest for the perfectly brewed cup has been going on for a very long time.

Behold the Continental Balancing Siphon, above — a completely automatic, 19th-century table top vacuum brewer.


There’s an unmistakable element of coffee making as theater here… but also, a fascinating demonstration of physical principles in action.

Vintage vacuum pot collector Brian Harris breaks down how the balancing siphon works:

Two vessels are arranged side-by-side, with a siphon tube connecting the two.

Coffee is placed in one side (usually glass), and water in the other (usually ceramic). 

A spirit lamp heats the water, forcing it through the tube and into the other vessel, where it mixes with the coffee. 

As the water is transferred from one vessel to the other, a balancing system based on a counterweight or spring mechanism is activated by the change in weight. This in turn triggers the extinguishing of the lamp. A partial vacuum is formed, which siphons the brewed coffee through a filter and back into the first vessel, from which is dispensed by means of a spigot.

(Still curious? We direct you to Harris’ website for a lengthier, more eggheaded explanation, complete with equations, graphs, and calculations for saturated vapor pressure and the approximate temperature at which downward flow begins.)

The balancing siphon was to 1850’s Paris and Vienna what Blue Bottle’s three-foot tall Japanese slow-drip iced coffee-making devices are to early 21st-century Brooklyn and Oakland.

Does the flavor of coffee brewed in a balance siphon merit the time and, if purchased in a cafe, expense?

Yes, according to Maria Tindemans, the CEO of Royal Paris, whose 24-carat gold and Bacarrat glass balancing siphon retails for between $17,500 and $24,000:

The coffee from a syphon can best be described as “crystal clear,” with great purity of flavor and aroma and no bitterness added by the brewing process.

More affordable balancing siphons can be found online, though be forewarned, all siphons are a bitch to clean, according to Reddit.

If you do invest, be sure to up the coffee snobbery by telling your captive audience that you’ve named your new device “Gabet,” in honor of Parisian Louis Gabet, whose 1844 patent for a counterweight mechanism kicked off the balancing siphon craze.

via Boing Boing

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday

A Dancer Pays a Gravity-Defying Tribute to Claude Debussy

Most dancers have an intuitive understanding of physics.

Choreographer Yoann Bourgeois pushes this science beyond the standard lifts, leaps, and pirouettes, drawing on his training at the Centre National Des Arts du Cirque for a piece marking the centenary of composer Claude Debussy’s death, above.

Given the occasion, the choice of Clair de Lune, Debussy’s best loved piano work, feels practically de rigueur, but the trampoline comes as a bit of a shock.

We may not be able to see it, but it plays such an essential role, it’s tempting to call this solo a pas de deux. At the very least, the trampoline is an essential collaborator, along with pianist Alexandre Tharau and filmmaker Raphaël Wertheimer.


Bourgeois’ expressiveness as a performer has earned him comparisons to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His choreography shows that he also shares their work ethic, attention to detail, and love of jawdropping visual stunts.

Don’t expect any random boinging around on this tramp’.

For four and a half minutes, Bourgeois’ everyman struggles to get to the top of a stark white staircase. Every time he falls off, the trampoline launches him back onto one of the steps — higher, lower, the very one he fell off of…

Interpret this struggle how you will.

Psyche, a digital magazine that “illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophical understanding and the arts” found it to be “an abstracted interpretation of a childlike experience of time.” One viewer wondered if the number of steps — twelve — was significant.

It’s no stretch to conceive of it as a comment on the nature of life — a constant cycle of falling down and bouncing back.

It’s lovely to behold because Bourgeois makes it look so easy.

In an interview with NR, he spoke of how his circus studies led to the realization that “the relationship between physical forces” is what he’s most interested in exploring. The stairs and trampoline, like all of his sets (or devices, as he prefers to call them), are there to “amplify specific physical phenomenon”:

In science, we’d call them models – they’re simplifications of our world that enable me to amplify one particular force at a time. Together, this ensemble of devices, this constellation of constructed devices, tentatively approaches the point of suspension. And so, this makes up a body of research; it’s a life’s research that doesn’t have an end in itself. 

The relationship with physical forces has an eloquent capacity that can be very big; it has the kind of expression that is universal.

Watch more of Youann Bourgeois’ physics-based choreography on his YouTube channel.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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