Well, not just the Sunday Science Poem. I suppose his remarks could be construed to be about poetry, more generally, and about Robert Frost, more specifically (as the remarks were made in honor of Robert Frost’s passing earlier in 1963):
At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
-President John F Kennedy, Remarks at Amherst College, 26 October 1963
*Hat tip to Greg Proops on The Smartest Man in the World Podcast.
If you have been following Mike’s Sunday Science Poem series, you know that we are fans of Lucretius. Lucretius was a Roman poet and philosopher in the first century BC. He is famous for his only extant work De Rerum Natura – The Nature of Things, covering many topics near and dear to the hearts of modern scientists.
I am also a fan of the podcast History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps by Peter Adamson at King’s College London and LMU Munchen. Lucretius was an Epicurean, which is one of the many schools of philosophy covered. It may not be a replacement for studying philosophy in school, but listening to episodes 55-59 (including an episode on Lucretius himself) will help you understand the philosophical paradigm Lucretius was using when he wrote his great poem, especially when you are reading Mike’s series of posts on Lucretius:
Sunday Science Poem: The Epicurean Theory of Vision, and Bedwetting in Ancient Rome
Sunday Science Poem: Why You Should Read Lucretius
Lucretius Did Not Believe in Non-Overlapping Magisteria
Lucretius and The Fear of Death
There is Grandeur in Lucretius’ View of Life
Lucretius: Lightning is Not a Means of Divine Communication
Czesław Miłosz’s “This World” (1994)
It’s a question you’ve certainly heard before – the laws of physics work just fine when you run time backwards, so why, in the real world, does time only go forwards?
Run a movie backwards, and what you see could never happen in real life: a diver never leaps feet first out of the pool onto the board, while drops of water fling themselves back in. But, as Richard Feynman explained, at the level of atoms and molecules, there is no reason why running the film backward should be absurd – our laws of physics say time is reversible at the microscopic level. Feynman argued that time’s forward motion was a macroscopic phenomenon, rooted in the universe’s relentless increase in entropy. Physicist Lee Smolin has pursued a similar (but in many ways a radically different) idea – the forward flow of time is a consequence of a network of relationships in the universe. He may be right, but for the time being, why time is not reversible is still a deep mystery.
Physics isn’t the only place where reversibility appears to be a mystery. Why isn’t life reversible? Aging and death seem inevitable for us individually, but with each birth, the clock is reset. Biological time is reversed. How is that possible?
We don’t really know. Before your children are born you age twenty, thirty, or forty years. Your DNA has been copied and recopied, accumulating damage, telomeres have shortened, and your cells are on the way towards senescence, and yet each newborn gets a fresh start. Amazingly, each successive generation of children is not born ever more prematurely aged. If the clock can be reset for our germ cells, why can’t we reverse biological time in the rest of our cells? Continue reading
Wallace Stevens’ “What We See Is What We Think” (1949)
How much of what we see depends on what we think?
In one sense, everything; seeing is not a passive process, but a sophisticated act executed by our neural circuits. In another sense, seeing is what we choose to see, as Harvard psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons demonstrated with their famous video of the gorilla walking across the basketball court.
But does the relationship between thinking and seeing go deeper than the involuntary side effects of our selective attention? Thomas Kuhn argued that it did, in his notorious chapter X from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (the chapter philosophers refer to, in a classic example of academia’s demented sense of humor, as the ‘X-rated chapter X’): Continue reading
Robert Frost’s “A Loose Mountain” (1942)
A Balearic slinging competition, as I learned from slinging.org, involves slinging rocks at an iron disk fastened to the center of a board. In “A Loose Mountain,” Frost suggests that the Earth may be the target of a cosmic slinging game played with loose mountains instead of small stones, and that the major contestant, the Outer Black, is just waiting for the perfect shot.
Frost plays on the tension between our remarkable achievements as a species and our apparent insignificance in the universe. We can stand outside and ooh and aah over the incineration of high velocity rocks during the Leonid meteor shower, and then walk back inside, out of the night and into our well-lit homes, no longer at the mercy of the diurnal cycle. And yet there is no reason we can’t be snuffed out with one well-placed asteroid, just like the dinosaurs.