Richard Feynman, in the lecture ‘The Value of Science,’ points to some fundamental characteristics of being human, and how the traits that make us human come to be. He conveys some fundamental ideas about the dynamic attributes as well as the isness of the natural world.
Feynman talks about how we happened to be what we are.
Looking at things along the same lines could help us appreciate certain aspects of the biology of living things, the continuous unison that exists among the living and non-living components of nature, and the characteristics of what we call ‘life,’ in large. Feynman says:
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 piece paints a swift and subtle picture of the process of evolution.
The first six lines take us on a tour, starting from the rushing waves pounding the shore on a dead planet with no life, through the birthing of living things (e.g., masses of atoms, DNA, protein) dancing an intricate dance, and finally reaching the human self — a universe of atoms — that stands at the sea and wonders at wondering about it being an atom in the universe.
We look at how the atoms and the more complex entities, such as proteins and DNA, start to ‘dance’ in a certain manner. Atoms and molecules dancing/interacting with each other in a specific manner form large groups performing life-giving functions, ultimately establishing a continuum we call an organism.
This dance, becoming progressively more complex through the evolution, gives rise to the properties of awareness, consciousness, and curiosity within a human self. We see the emergence of such seemingly abstract feature as self-awareness from the atoms and molecules — the particles, of which the physical existence we can discern.
Further in the essay, Feynman talks about how individual physical components become a part of something else, something larger, giving rise to a unique form with unique properties. He states, “The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks.” He explains what this means: the phosphorus atoms in our brains are continuously replaced by new atoms as the old ones go away. The new atoms do the same dance that was being done by the older atoms, hence remembering what happened in our minds a year ago. Next, Feynman adds:
…the thing which I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, then go out; always new atoms but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.
We may say that a certain type of dance done by certain types of atoms or molecules or groups of different atoms and molecules results in a certain trait. Hence, each individual pattern of dance would result in the emergence of a unique set of properties that make the physical matter what it is; unique dance patterns of a unique set of atoms, building the unique physical matter.
We see that the obvious differences among the physical substances and objects — be it natural or manmade — different animals, and plants arise due to the differences in the dance patterns or the dancers that constitute these different things. It would also follow that the dance of the dancers within our bodies is what results in all the qualities of what we perceive as life and living. And also what we perceive as non-living; when the life-giving dance seizes, another state ensues, which we call death, while the journey and the existence of the individual dancers would move on.
The atoms and molecules that make our cells, organs, and our bodies — a universe of them — interact in a certain manner/dance for a finite span of time, keeping the bodies and personalities intact.
While we humans can consciously recognize the qualities or states of being as alive and dead, we also should appreciate that what we are, what we do, how we behave, and all the aspects of what we call our personalities — our physical, mental, and emotional facets, as well as different states such as health and ill-health — are all largely the manifestations of the dance of the atoms that make us. This dance, that makes us what we are, may not be a dance that we can take complete control over, one that we can choreograph to a large extent. Maybe, it’s a dance that spontaneously happens; or it may be influenced by several other forces as ‘natural’ as the dance itself.
Thus, all the wonderful and terrible things humans do may actually be the mere results of certain dance patterns that may intrinsically be neither wonderful, nor terrible, and more importantly, not completely under our conscious control. Maybe, we are merely the manifestations of the dance patterns choreographed by the atoms that constitute us — masses of atoms, DNA and proteins; we are the complex and continuous interactions of the molecular universes that produce the physical and mental facets of the human self.
Often, one wonders about the limits and limitlessness of human possibilities, human atrocities, and compassion; the extents of everything we deem good and bad.
Nishanth M. J. is a doctoral student in Biology. He currently lives in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, pursuing academic research.