Sometimes understanding the world and its human life forms is hard, even when you take it in little pieces. That’s nothing new, but it has hit home for me over the past few weeks and left me wondering what it is that motivates humans to act the way they do.
I’ve been studying physics as taught by the late Richard Feynman, former professor at Caltech and Nobel Prize winner, who is famous for a series of lectures he gave in the early 1960s to first year students. Not sure I’d ever be able to take on the whole Feynman Lectures on Physics, but someone thoughtfully pulled the basics together in a book called Six Easy Pieces, which, from its name alone, sounds ideal for this search I’m on.
The first key hypothesis Feynman presents is that “everything is made of atoms”, which he expands on by explaining more about water molecules than I’ve ever needed to know, and a whole lot of other things that make sense while I’m reading and then slip away pretty quickly when they don’t find anything to stick to in my unscientific brain. Here’s the very cool bridge though, which is helpfully italicized at the end of the first chapter: “there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics … if water – which is nothing but these little blobs, mile upon mile of the same thing over the earth – can form waves and foam, and make rushing noises and strange patterns as it runs over cement; if all of this, all the life of a stream of water, can be nothing but a pile of atoms, how much more is possible?” In the case of humans, where atoms are arranged in much more complex ways that are constantly changing, how much more is possible? “When we say we are a pile of atoms” Feynman says, “we do not mean we are merely a pile of atoms, because a pile of atoms which is not repeated from one to the other might well have the possibilities which you see before you in the mirror.”
I find this beautiful and moving and the sign of an ultimate optimist – to define a human being as a pile of atoms and then talk about its potential. It reminds me of that great scene from Martian Child when John Cusack’s character says “right now, you and me here, put together entirely of atoms, sitting on this round rock with a core of liquid iron, held down by this force that seems to trouble you, called gravity, all the while spinning around the sun at 67,000 miles an hour and whizzing through the Milky Way at 600,000 miles an hour in a universe that very well may be chasing its own tail at the speed of light; and amidst all this frantic activity, fully cognizant of our own imminent demise – which is our own pretty way of saying we all know we’re gonna die – we reach out to one another. Sometimes for the sake of empathy, sometimes for reasons you’re not old enough to understand yet, but a lot of the time we just reach out and expect nothing in return. Isn’t that strange? Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that weird enough? What the heck do you need to be from Mars for?”
So here we are, piles of atoms constantly rearranged in random patterns, that are capable of acts of selflessness, gratitude, creativity … and also acts of violence, greed and hate. Piles of atoms with the potential to be life-affirming and life-damaging. What is it that leads us one way or the other? More importantly, can we decide which way we go? With all our potential, is it possible to learn to control our atoms and consciously guide our actions – to be motivated consistently by compassion and social consciousness rather than fear or loneliness?