Atoms With Consciousness, Matter With Curiosity

Probably I’m the last scientfically-oriented person in the world to discover this, but Richard Feynman wrote a poem that he read as part of an address to the National Academy of Sciences. I stumbled across it because I was actually looking for scientists who were familiar with work of the poet Muriel Rukeyser — anyone have any suggestions? Anyway, here’s Feynman:

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
atoms with consciousness;
matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea,
wonders at wondering: I
a universe of atoms
an atom in the Universe.

Nobody is surprised, of course, that Feynman was a card-carrying dysteleological physicalist. More interesting is that he chose to highlight this kind of question — the emergence of complexity and consciousness from the blind play of atoms, stupidly minding their own business — rather than something about particle physics, for example. As much as reductionists get a bad name in some circles, the good ones do appreciate the bigger picture.

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34 Responses to Atoms With Consciousness, Matter With Curiosity

  1. Gizelle Janine says:

    This is an unbelievable poem to randomly find, holy s%&*.

    I find that a lot of people who try to write a poem about the universe or science related things don’t do it justice (me included. *sadface*) It’s pretty hard to write about something so detailed and full of subdivisions, but like I said, holy crap this is good…

  2. Shecky R says:

    so much of Feynman’s writing and talking borders on poetical it just makes sense that he would’ve actually composed some poetry!

  3. Filip says:

    Nice one, first time I see it.

    There’s another one that I believe you all already know, but for just in case – here it is (audio, read by Feynman himself).


  4. Plato says:

    “When I see equations, I see the letters in colors – I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light-tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.” Feynman, Richard. 1988. What Do You Care What Other People Think? New York: Norton. P. 59.

    It might help to see why he had certain abilities when he went about describing the visualizing spaces he worked in. Also, to extend his flexibility at his description of nature.

    “The adventure of our science of physics is a perpetual attempt to recognize that the different aspects of nature are really different aspects of the same thing”Richard Feynman

  5. Meh says:

    i’m fairly certain feynman introduced carl sagan to weed, though i have no evidence to support that.

  6. Thomas H. Jones says:

    I would say he found the right profession.

  7. Neil says:

    A wonderful poem by Feynman and evocative of a line by Gerard Manley Hopkins “These things, these things were here and but the beholder wanting.” Hopkins, of course, religious, and Feynman not. Interesting.

  8. Leon says:


  9. No time, no past. No past, no experience.

  10. Tim Martin says:

    The poem seems to benefit from having its first line (almost) intact:
    “I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.”

    This is as quoted here.

  11. bob says:

    Regarding Sean’s question on Muriel Rukeyser, the physicist and historian of physics Martin Klein wrote in his article on Gibbs in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography “A more popularly written biography, valuable for period background and a poet’s insight, is Muriel Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs.”

    @Plato – synesthesia is most frequently associated with musicians, coupling color and music; I wonder if there are other cases where it has been known to have occurred for mathematicians, coupling color and maths?

  12. Amazing poetry from a man I always knew as a genius. Regrettably, I had never read it before. So thanks for sharing it with us.

    About a year ago, I wrote a poem which stretches right from the creation of our Universe to its probable end with our infinitesimally small Earth and thrown in. I have appended it below. It is rather long but if you look at Verse XIV, it is somewhat similar to what Feynman wrote perhaps half a century ago.


    In the beginning of Creation,
    At the beginning of the very beginning,
    Before there came space and time,
    Floating free in a primeval void,
    In a Dimension unknown,
    Was effervescence infinitesimally small,
    But of immense solidity, unimaginably intense,
    Of matter unknown,
    There by the nature of its own existence,
    On rules shaped by entities beyond,
    Far, far beyond
    The grasp of the human mind.

    Deep in the womb of this miniscule bubble,
    For reasons unknown,
    There was a stirring
    To create a new Universe,
    In a new dimension
    Thus waves of disturbance beginning,
    A trembling tempo rising,
    Caused energy waves so profound,
    That rising in synergistic unison,
    Generated an intensity so explosive,
    That ripped it asunder,
    With a violence unimaginable,
    In a silent monumental eruption,
    Of blinding primal radiation,
    Mightier than a trillion supernovae.

    In the aftermath
    Of this awesome fury,
    In that instant of the moment,
    Where infinity meets eternity,
    Shot through this void,
    Undulating waves,
    Bolts of formless energy,
    Into this spaceless abyss,
    Wavelike, massless particles
    Intensely suffused and ghostly,
    Silently expanding wraithlike,
    Radiating into eternal blackness.

    As this fiery energy dispersed,
    Over distances unfathomable,
    Streaking through this emptiness,
    It made its own space,
    With time as a sister,
    And as its companion,
    To journey the vast distances,
    To destinations unknown.
    Time passed in this spatial void,
    And this intense energy,
    Dense with varied radiation,
    Catalysed by the God Particle,
    Coalesced into solidity,
    Forming huge volatile masses,
    Growing to stupendous sizes,
    Some imploding upon themselves,
    In a maelstrom of violence,
    Forming in its trail,
    Heavenly Galaxies, Supernovae,
    Stars and Nebulae innumerable;
    Creating a veritable firmament
    With a violence that continues
    To persist in our present times.

    Emanating from these entities
    Were myriad radiations,
    Some of which glowed, as if alive;
    And visible in their splendour.
    This medley of radiation,
    Suffusing through this universe,
    As massless particles of wave energy,
    Random and wayward,
    Caught in the warp
    Of the expanding universe,
    Enveloped time and space,
    In a single dimensional unity.
    And photons of this energy,
    Shooting through,
    In bolts of lightning speed
    Lit up the Universe,
    Aeons ago.

    Yet these photons,
    Streaming over vast distances,
    Could illuminate the senses,
    Of beings: human or mechanical.
    But only an infinitesimal part,
    Of these immense clumps of matter,
    Could so be illuminated,
    By photons and its brethren waves.
    Thus, unknown to our senses,
    But diffused randomly
    Over the vast interstellar spaces,
    Enormous amounts of matter lie,
    In ethereal strands of invisible filaments,
    Floating wispily, unseen, unheard,
    A Dark Matter with Dark Energy as its creator,
    Undetectable by man,
    And smiling at his incredulity.

    Yet the other part, palpable
    Sensed and concrete,
    Floated in this void,
    Forming stars and galaxies,
    In the way that nature,
    By rules it propounds,
    Bound by the physics of forces
    Created with our Universe,
    Forming oases of immense masses,
    In this endless void,
    And appeared in the firmament,
    To glitter till the end of time.

    Some of these masses,
    Coalesced from radiation,
    Caught in the dynamic warp of spacetime,
    Settled down to their natural purpose
    Through interaction over aeons,
    Created a myriad of matter forms.
    Amongst the trillions of such galaxies,
    So far-flung that space between is immeasurable.
    And formed by this cataclysmic evolution,
    Was a galaxy shaped like a beautiful spiral,
    A miniature Universe by itself,
    Which we now call the Milky Way.

    Like an ugly wart,
    On the face of this lovely galaxy,
    Was a malevolent entity,
    A terrible and hungry Black Hole,
    So gluttonous that it devoured everything,
    Even massless radiation,
    Excreting all into dimensional time warp.
    And nothing could escape,
    This invisible, evil monstrous bully,
    As it rotated slowly
    In anticipation of its next starry meal.
    But far-flung and thus benignly safe,
    Embedded in an insignificant arm,
    Of the Milky Way,
    Was a cloud of dense gas,
    That with an inexplicable suddenness,
    Fell upon itself; coalescing as it did
    Into a volatile spinning star,
    Slated to be our sun,
    Beset by a perpetual nuclear fusion
    Glowing with intense photonic radiation,
    Looking forth to spew forth its influence.
    It watched with some satisfaction,
    As the remnants of the cloud,
    Arched into a single swirling disc
    Which solidified into the planets,
    Forming a spinning, gyrating system
    Caught by the awesome gravity of spacetime,
    Enslaving them to orbit the central sun.

    Thus was formed,
    Our Solar System of Planets
    Revolving around this sun,
    And in this miniscule section of the Milky Way
    Itself a miniscule fleck of visible matter,
    In a dark and endless void of space,
    Created a system so exquisite,
    Like, perhaps a billion others,
    Of planets orbiting a glowing star
    With geometric precision,
    Enslaved to a metronomic gyration till
    The central sun devours it,
    In a beautifully spectacular performance
    Of mindless destruction.

    As masses like this,
    Settled down in colonies
    Began to form bonds
    With those that they bordered,
    Much influenced by proximate brethren
    And in one of the satellites,
    Flung aside like a useless, ragged doll,
    Was our planet Earth,
    Spinning angularly on its axis,
    Like a ballerina’s pirouette,
    While circling around the sun,
    Which was itself gyrating,
    In the spiral arms of the Milky Way.

    Peace in this cosmic realm,
    Was brutally shattered
    When orbits intersecting,
    A wandering planet,
    Collided with Earth,
    With a feral ferocity
    That tore from its innards,
    And disembowelled from its belly,
    Birthing a smaller spinning sphere
    Flung out in violence
    Which, caught in Earth’s gravity,
    Began its metronomic orbit,
    As a satellite of mother Earth,
    Which humans later,
    Would call the Moon.

    Billions of years pass,
    And on this earth,
    Shaped by the Laws of Nature,
    Initiated a reaction of its contents,
    Forming atoms and molecules,
    And caused by chemical combination,
    Of two elemental gases
    Was water born.
    And this water,
    Which, created in gross abundance,
    Ranged over the surface of the earth,
    In a volatile liquid mantle.

    And nurtured by the heat of the Sun,
    By the churning of its own contents
    Or perhaps by a cosmic intervention
    When one straying mass,
    Finds, after a million years,
    A brother separated at birth,
    Catalysed such a chemistry,
    That evolved in this water,
    To create a primeval sludge
    Of matter that came to be,
    On the verge of the living.
    Then, in a stroke of the mysterious,
    In a way eternally inexplicable,
    Wherein probably lies,
    The Great Truth of our Universe,
    Caused such a mixture to form
    That by the warmth of the sun,
    Was infused with life,
    And in a cosmic dance of multiplication,
    Ebulliently replicated itself,
    Suffusing all around it
    With the subtle elements
    Of a mystifying consciousness
    That we call life.

    Millions of years pass,
    And a natural philosophy evolved,
    That only those that are never born,
    Are destined never to die.
    And yet in this Universal realm,
    Even death, is but a passing phase,
    In a mandated quantum transformation,
    That nothing is ever so utterly obliterated,
    That, transformed, it cannot exist again.
    Thus change, volatile and turbulent,
    Lies fundamental in Universal philosophy,
    The Earth evolves.
    Mountains and plains,
    Seas and vegetation,
    Travel thousands of miles,
    Even as the earth rumbles,
    In thunderous quakes,
    That shakes the very core,
    Of our turbulent world.
    Movements are vast,
    Continents collide,
    Throwing up mountains,
    At places the sea bottom rises,
    Into the dry air above,
    To bathe in the light,
    Streaming in from the sun.

    Hidden away,
    The conscious beings,
    Evolving with nature,
    And assuming higher forms,
    Swam the vast oceans,
    Of this rich, primeval soup.
    And these living beings,
    Seeking the warmth of the sun,
    Now having grown to stupendous sizes,
    Adapted their swimming fins,
    To walk the dry land.
    Having so done,
    Living in the midst,
    Of boundless forests,
    They foraged thereon,
    And some assumed gargantuan forms,
    With fodder from these vast green tracts.
    But some creatures adapted,
    To the life of those times,
    By staying small and meek,
    Not knowing that destiny had ordained
    That they would, one day
    Inherit our planet.

    Unexpectedly then, a small asteroid,
    A mere rock, passing nearby
    Entered the sky of planet Earth.
    And the huge foraging beasts,
    Looking skyward could not discern,
    This ominous rock
    Looming over them
    Like the Sword of Damocles.
    And in a cataclysmic moment,
    It entered the atmospheric mantle,
    Friction burning it,
    Like a celestial torch of doom,
    It crashed on the surface of the earth,
    Sending up vast spirals of dust,
    Awesome to behold,
    That blackened the sky,
    Obliterating the rays
    Of the life-giving Sun,
    Triggering great earthquakes,
    That swelled the sea,
    Into stupendous waves,
    That crashed on shores,
    Wiping out, large swaths,
    Of land and of forests,
    And all living beings therein.
    And the sky became dark,
    Day became endless night,
    And the remaining forests,
    Mostly died away,
    Lacking sustenance
    For dearth of heat and light
    From their life-giving sun.

    The huge beasts,
    That inhabited this world,
    Knowing not what happened,
    Conscious only of a craving,
    To stay alive in this catastrophe,
    Ranged far and wide,
    But everywhere was a night
    A darkness of death,
    And the forests quickly dwindled,
    Deprived of the sun’s heat and light,
    Till there was no food
    For the larger beings
    That roamed the land,
    And they lay down,
    And of hunger, died.
    But the smaller life,
    Needing lesser to subsist,
    Held on tenaciously,
    To their meagre lives,
    And propagating their species,
    In a frenzy of evolution,
    Mutated gradually to the new
    System on earth.
    Then, slowly the dust settled,
    Verdant forests reappeared,
    And these smaller beings,
    Gradually found themselves,
    In the midst of plenty,
    And hence prospered.

    One such species,
    Ape-like in demeanour,
    Who survived the holocaust,
    By dint of its adaptability,
    To cope with the
    New order that was,
    Benign and exuberant,
    Procreated rampantly,
    Populating this world,
    Dominating their fellow creatures,
    With whom they shared the earth.
    Then, as years passed,
    These dextrous beings,
    By dint of their intelligence,
    Leapt to the evolutionary fore,
    And evolving as humans
    Produced their own food
    And lived in communal harmony,
    Spending their lives, adapting,
    Caring, healing and in industry,
    Understanding their life,
    In increasingly sophisticated perception,
    In music, dance and other arts,
    Communicating with each other,
    In sound and by inscription,
    Sped ahead of the other species
    Prodigiously accelerating with
    An insatiable thirst for knowledge,
    Of their natural world.
    Sometimes they looked up to see,
    The stars in the sky,
    Wondrous and glittering,
    And realised that the ground they stood on,
    Was a mere dot,
    In the infinity of the sky
    And surmised that the eternal,
    Secret Truth of the Universe,
    And revelation of the mystery
    Of their own creation,
    Lay hidden in that endless firmament.
    But in their quest for knowledge,
    To deviously survive in the world
    That was of their own making,
    They also learnt to be evil.

    But do these human beings,
    Evolving from a sludgy soup
    Conceived only in an event of near impossibility,
    By which conscious life was created,
    That self-adapts rapidly by mutation,
    To higher and higher genetic forms,
    Know that on the cosmic quantum scale,
    Reality merges into illusion, and
    Their planet is but an infinitesimal blue dot
    In just their Solar System
    Which is but a particle of stardust
    Far in a dark corner of the Milky Way
    In itself one of a trillion galaxies,
    In our stupendous Universe?
    Will they ever remember,
    That all their creations,
    From all their industry,
    Wrought assiduously over millions of years,
    Shall be rendered into naught
    And be forever destroyed,
    As the Sun shall devour them,
    And spin on even as it withers
    In the suicidal throes
    As it consumes itself
    Into an insignificant mass,
    Within the spinning spirals,
    Of our Galaxy?

    A time will come thereafter,
    When this great galaxy,
    Of the Milky Way
    That we revere as our own,
    Will vanish forever,
    Spiralling into the central Black Hole,
    That had only snacked,
    On minor stars that crossed its path
    Whilst it has lain in wait,
    For billions of years,
    Like a patient vulture,
    For that gargantuan meal,
    To consume the Milky Way,
    Thus eating itself,
    In a cannibalistic frenzy
    That is probably destined
    To be its last supper.

    And the remnants of our Universe,
    Will go on draining its immense energy,
    In mindless expansive flight
    For trillions of years
    That finally merges into infinity of time and space.
    Maybe instead, it may come to such pass,
    Our Universe may enter another Dimension
    And merge with it in a marriage of convenience,
    In a cyclic dance of existence.
    Or mayhap, the end will come,
    When the Dark Energy fuelling this cosmic flight
    Of our Universe is utterly exhausted
    From its seemingly purposeless endeavours,
    To continue this epic outward journey,
    And thus brings it to an abrupt halt.
    Then starting again,
    From a deathly Universal stillness,
    Slowly reversing its motion,
    Sucked back by universal gravity
    Accelerating, it will begin to compact,
    Spiralling into itself
    Imploding to compress all matter,
    Into an awesome density,
    And enter into an unknown realm,
    Perhaps, to deliver this Universe,
    Into the bowels of another.

    To discover the Singular Truth:
    The reason for all Creation,
    Scientists will toil on,
    Philosophers will cerebrate,
    With their pitifully miniscule minds
    To unravel this complex simplicity.
    But unheedingly, the Divine Play will continue,
    And the cycle will begin once more,
    As the Eternal Dance of Impermanence,
    Manifests itself,
    When a bubble of immense solidity,
    Of matter unknown,
    Feels the stirring in its womb,
    To start a new creation
    Which will yet again,
    Explode in silent fury,
    In eternal cyclical repetition,
    To create a New World,
    In a New Universe.

    The similarity is uncanny, isn’t it? Even the whole poem seems to have similar characteristics of words and meter

  13. Student says:

    Funny to see the comments praising this poem. A friend of mine found it a few years ago, and we laughed at how bad it was. I’ve got to say, re-reading it now, I’m still glad Feynman stuck to his day job.

  14. James Cross says:

    Tim Martin – from your link he describes this as a religious experience.

    “It is true that few unscientific people have this particular type of religious experience. Our poets do not write about it; our artists do not try to portray this remarkable thing. I don’t know why. Is nobody inspired by our present picture of the universe? The value of science remains unsung by singers, so you are reduced to hearing — not a song or a poem, but an evening lecture about it.”

  15. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong says:

    “… the emergence of complexity and consciousness from the blind play of atoms, stupidly minding their own business …”

    Colliding blindly, atoms
    Invading blindly, viruses
    Infesting blindly, bacteria
    Choring blindly, kidney cells
    Pumping blindly, the loving hearts
    Surfing blindly, to Phil Gibbs’ blog ( )
    The G-strings gave rise to consciousness, blindly

  16. The Cosmist says:

    As long as we’re sharing poetry, I can’t resist…


    What is this mad sight before you?

    Incarnate speck of star dust,
    Animate ash of stellar fires,
    Cinder of the Cosmos
    Shaking its fist at the sky.

    Some outraged atoms,
    Unamused by the cosmic joke
    That has imprisoned them there upon a mote,
    Spinning, helpless in the void.

    An ant upon a cosmic carousel
    Turning through space and time,
    An extra in an unknown drama
    Upon a stage too big for its mind.

  17. Monroe says:

    “A mite makes the sea roar”

    (My favorite line).

  18. Pingback: Atoms With Conscious, Matter With Curiosity | Mocking Thrush

  19. Feynman’s poem is sheer brilliance. But do atoms produce consciousness or does consciousness suck stuff in? Does the pot instruct the potter as to how to shape the pot?

  20. CB says:

    I don’t know. It seems weird to posit that “the concept of consciousness” has a physical existence seperate from matter, rather than the thing we label consciousness arising from matter. I just have a hard time seeing those two hypothesis as equal in likelyhood.

  21. Brathmore says:

    Here are some related quotes that I really like:

    “Another source of conviction in the existence of God, connected with the reason and not with the feelings, impresses me as having much more weight. This follows from the extreme difficulty or rather impossibility of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as the result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.”

    –Charles Darwin, the founder of evolutionary biology, as quoted in his autobiography.

    “It seems to me that when confronted with the marvels of life and the universe, one must ask why and not just how. The only possible answers are religious. . . . I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life.” “Religion is founded on faith. It seems to me that when confronted with the marvels of life and the universe, one must ask why and not just how. The only possible answers are religious. For me that means Protestant Christianity, to which I was introduced as a child and which has withstood the tests of a lifetime.” “But the context of religion is a great background for doing science. In the words of Psalm 19, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork’. Thus scientific research is a worshipful act, in that it reveals more of the wonders of God’s creation.”

    –Arthur L. Schawlow, Professor of Physics at Stanford University and winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize in Physics.

    To the question, “Many prominent scientists – including Darwin, Einstein, and Planck – have considered the concept of God very seriously. What are your thoughts on the concept of God and on the existence of God?” Christian Anfinsen replied: “I think only an idiot can be an atheist. We must admit that there exists an incomprehensible power or force with limitless foresight and knowledge that started the whole universe going in the first place.”

    –Christian Anfinsen, winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on ribonuclease.

    “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, and delicately balanced to provide exactly the conditions required to support life. In the absence of an absurdly improbable accident, the observations of modern science seem to suggest an underlying, one might say, supernatural plan.”

    –Arno Penzias, winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.

  22. Pierre Tucci-Schmidt says:

    Proving that even Nobelists can be idiots in some ways. 🙂

  23. James Cross says:

    deeponics and CB

    Consciousness itself must be actually material – not just arising from atoms – unless you are prepared to admit that there is something not material, which would open up the entire supernatural realm as possible.

    So the real question is what kind of material is it?

  24. Hello James Cross and CB.
    A good read is:, from which I quote:-
    “So far, neural communication has been thought to occur almost entirely via traffic involving synapses, the junctions where one neuron connects to the next one. Our work suggests an additional means of neural communication through the extracellular space independent of synapses. Extracellular electric fields exist throughout the living brain”.

  25. James Cross says:

    Good stuff, deeponics.

    You ought to look at some of the points in this:

    “Hameroff has come up with a simple model in which anesthetic drugs interact almost exclusively with microtubules; the rest of the neuron plays only a marginal role. This model is the closest anyone has come to a unified theory of anesthesia — yet it flatly contradicts the notion that consciousness arises from firing neurons.”

    Then there are Persinger’s experiments that seemingly have demonstrated an entanglement in the brains of humans separated by distance that I talk about here: