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
standing:
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.

This entry was posted in Science, Words. Bookmark the permalink.

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…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 2

  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!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  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).

    Cheers

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  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

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  5. Meh says:

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

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 5

  6. Thomas H. Jones says:

    I would say he found the right profession.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  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.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. Leon says:

    Lucretius?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

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

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  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.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  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?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  12. Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Poorly-rated. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 16

  13. Student says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Poorly-rated. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 13

  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.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. Tienzen (Jeh-Tween) Gong says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Poorly-rated. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 10

  16. The Cosmist says:

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

    THE COSMIC COMEDY

    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.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 5

  17. Monroe says:

    “A mite makes the sea roar”

    (My favorite line).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  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?

    Thumb up 4 Thumb down 6

  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.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  21. Brathmore says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Poorly-rated. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 14

  22. Pierre Tucci-Schmidt says:

    Proving that even Nobelists can be idiots in some ways. :)

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2

  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?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  24. Hello James Cross and CB.
    A good read is: http://www.caltech.edu/content/neurobiologists-find-weak-electrical-fields-brain-help-neurons-fire-together#sthash.IKNNteWE.dpuf, 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”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  25. James Cross says:

    Good stuff, deeponics.

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

    http://www.wired.com/medtech/drugs/magazine/16-04/ff_kurzweil_sb

    “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:

    http://broadspeculations.com/2013/02/02/no-more-secrets/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  26. Stolen Dormouse says:

    Getting back to Sean’s original question, did you check out Roald Hoffmann at Cornell University, who is a chemistry Nobelist and poet? He might be familiar with her writing.

    Also, in 1969 or 1970, Feynman was a supportive picketer at a pro-legalization of marijuana demonstration by Caltech undergrads at a Pasadena municipal building. Feynman’s sign read: “Foolishness should not be a felony!” However, I don’t remember him ever saying anything positive about marijuana use, or that he used it himself, during my undergrad years (1966-1970).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  27. CB says:

    James Cross: “Consciousness itself must be actually material – not just arising from atoms ”

    What makes you say that?

    Neither your nor deeponics links support that viewpoint even remotely — they both are directly referring to ordinary interactions of matter in the brain. Those electric fields deeponic’s link refers to are *generated* by the matter in the brain, and other matter responds to them. The microtubules your link talks about are part of the axon, just regular particles in a particular arrangement.

    All those links say is that the mechanisms by which the brain operates are more complicated and involve more factors than previously thought.

    To me it makes it even more likely that consciousness is simply an emergent property of those mechanisms. How is it that it makes you feel it is less likely, that “consciousness” must exist separately from such mechanisms?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  28. James Cross says:

    My position is the materialist position. In my view, it is only possible correct materialist position.

    And so yes those links support my position.

    Here is a little more elaboration.

    Your position seems to anti-materialist. That consciousness is something different from matter – an emergent property as you say. I am not saying that is not a valid position. You might be right but it is not my position.

    By “matter”, by the way, I mean matter in the very broad sense that matter and energy, wave and particle, are all material.

    The strict materialist position must be that there is nothing that is not matter. So even an emergent property- such as mind or consciousness – would also need to be material.

    The bottom line is that if the materialist lets into his model anything that is not matter then the floodgates are open and there would be no reason to rule out a priori other non-material emergent properties – ghosts, spirits, God, or whatever. What’s more this is precisely Nagel’s argument -to revisit an earlier post – that is there is something about consciousness that is not material. So the strict materialist cannot argue that consciousness is non-material, even if it is an emergent property and dependent upon the underlying matter. Just arguing it is dependent upon the underlying matter isn’t sufficient.

    I believe that consciousness is simply the logical development of life. That once information began being encoded in matter – a definition of life – it only required the evolution of complex neural structures to begin encoding information in matter in real time – a definition of consciousness. But it might be that roots of consciousness go back before life. Penrose and Hameroff have argued for a quantum aspect to consciousness. Davies has argued for a quantum origin of life that he called Q-life.

    Let me quote from Stuart Hameroff:

    “Perhaps panpsychists are in some way correct and components of mental processes are fundamental, like mass, spin or charge. Following the ancient Greek panpsychists, Spinoza (1677) saw some form of consciousness in all matter. Leibniz (1766) portrayed the universe as an infinite number of fundamental units (“monads”) each having a primitive psychological being. Whitehead (e.g. 1929) was a process philosopher who viewed reality as a collection of events occurring in a basic field of proto­conscious experience (“occasions of experience”). Abner Shimony7 observed that Whitehead’s occasions were comparable to quantum state reductions-actual events in physical reality”

    http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/penrose-hameroff/fundamentality.html

    When I posed the question “what kind of material is it?”, I was perhaps being a little vague because I am not sure I have worked out the ramifications of it myself. But it would seem the logical materialist conclusion would be that if consciousness is material than the material would be in some sense conscious.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  29. Chris Gray says:

    Re Sean’s question about Muriel Rukeyser: Constance Reid seemed to know something about her because of their mutual interest in E.T.Bell (see Reid’s biography of mathematician E.T.Bell, aka John Taine,science fiction writer and poet ). Alas, too late to ask her.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  30. Matilde says:

    James Cross posted: What kind of material is it?
    I think is sacred matter. Have you ever read The Universe hymn, a religious poem written by the scientist and philosopher Tayllard de Chardin? maybe you will find some answers there.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  31. Hello CB,

    Just to respond to your question, here is my reply:-

    Particles do not last forever. They are not “permanent” mass: they are temporary end-points in space and time. The only thing that lasts forever is the space in which particles hang and clump and move, and that predication of space/time permanence encompasses quarks and all sub-atomic particles as well as objects a large as the Sun. The space in which the Sun hangs is timeless consciousness and will never expire.

    However, mass and energy cannot be destroyed – they just change places through temporary venturi of time/space-end-points. The end-point of a temporary splash is its energy peak away from gravity within its “time-gravity-space-energy” use-by-date (its end-point). The content of the splash might be matter and consist of particles but your vision of it has passed through some invisible membrane; your consciousness.

    You suck up your experience or consciousness of the universe into your brain and the universe (matter) sucks you up into your death. You suck up time and time sucks you. The incomprehensible power of the universe is that everything in it sucks something, whether it be heat, cold, gravity or time etc.

    Consciousness is an end-point that sucks everything in the universe into itself through venturi strictures of teleportation – the entire night sky teleports into your mind as an end-point image.

    Rather than being separate, memory and the future are “entwined” with each other in consciousness; time to come is time past through these venturi. When you look at the night sky, you either view it as a vision that is 13.7 billion light years old or you can view it as something you can see in your future tomorrow night:- i.e., when you look at it tomorrow night it comes from your future and not from the past of things that have already shot through the arrow of time.

    This “entwinement” arises because some strange “desire” or “suction” pulls universal flows together. Even quarks are entwined by a strange “desire”. They “desire” each other and clump by way of a field or space of spooky connectivity. Who is to say that the space between them pulls them together into singularities, and who is to say that two bits of matter within the quarks pull them together? Your mind is not disconnected from your body, yet is aloof above it. Heat “desires” or sucks cold and cold “desires” or sucks heat; there is a spooky connection between the two. You are in the centre of the universe and the universe is in the centre of you. You “desire” or suck the universe into your experience of it and the universe “desires” that you fall through it into a black hole more powerful than the black hole that is your brain. Maybe a better word for consciousness is ephemeral “desire”.

    Black holes “desire” light and light “desires” black holes in order to burn them into light. You suck information in and the universe sucks information out of you if you can write a Hamlet. Consciousness is the venturi through which “desire” draws time, light and gravity in and out, where, over time, light becomes gravity and gravity becomes light; and timeless consciousness is the centre of it. When you close your eyes and think “I am” there is no beginning or end of it, only the permanence of “now”, the brooding timeless consciousness of the present.

    I would even go so far as to say that consciousness holds a rock together as a rock, just as it holds my brain together as a brain. (And I accept that you might think I have rocks in my skull. That’s okay, because if you are right, my rocks are matter, therefore they think ((:-)) !

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  32. I like to share what Grandpa Albert used to sing to us when we were upset:

    Oh dear,
    What could the matter be?

    Oh dear,
    What could the matter be?

    Oh dear,
    What could the matter be?

    Looks like,
    It’s E over c squared.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  33. Peter says:

    Speaking of “poesy” and science, have a look at this…

    http://io9.com/so-this-physics-grad-student-made-a-mindblowing-bohemia-1333515132

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  34. CB says:

    James Cross: I think we are talking past each other. I know I certainly am confused by what you’re saying. The statement I took issue with was:

    “Consciousness itself must be actually material – not just arising from atoms ”

    I took it as given that you didn’t mean literally just atoms but all the known particles and forces, and that consciousness was some *other* kind of material outside that described by the Standard Model, some kind of “consciousness material” that is not simply comprised of atoms et. al. And that I believe is unsupported by any evidence.

    “Your position seems to anti-materialist. That consciousness is something different from matter – an emergent property as you say.”

    No! By saying consciousness is an emergent property, I’m saying it’s nothing BUT matter. Specifically, ordinary matter comprised of the particles and forces in the Standard Model. That’s what an “emergent property” is — a phenomenon that is a consequence of the interaction of simpler parts which do not exhibit the phenomenon individually. I’m saying consciousness is explainable as the result of the many interactions of ordinary matter with no need to appeal to anything else, either immaterial or special “consciousness material”. In this way consciousness is no different than a bicycle. They’re just novel arrangements of matter.

    “The strict materialist position must be that there is nothing that is not matter. So even an emergent property- such as mind or consciousness – would also need to be material.”

    See, this is where I’m confused again. Do you mean that everything would need to be ultimately *traceable* to material, that everything is a *consequence* of material? Or that abstract concepts like “justice” have a material existence outside of whatever physical neurons in our brain fire when we think about the concept? If the former, then we agree completely, if the latter, then that’s nutty, and if something else, please explain?!

    “The bottom line is that if the materialist lets into his model anything that is not matter then the floodgates are open and there would be no reason to rule out a priori other non-material emergent properties – ghosts, spirits, God, or whatever. ”

    The behavior of ghosts, spirits, or gods cannot be explained as an emergent property of normal matter.

    Well, except maybe for ghosts:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Infrasound#Suggested_relationship_to_ghost_sightings

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0