Atoms with Consciousness: Yo-Yo Ma Performs Richard Feynman’s Ode to the Wonder of Life, Animated

“Out of the cradle onto the dry land… here it is standing… atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity… I… a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.”

This episode is the last in a nine-part animated interlude series of The Universe in Verse in collaboration With On Being. It celebrates the wonders of reality by sharing stories of science infused with poetry. The rest of the series can be found here.


This is us, each one of us an portable festival of wonder. We stand here on this rock body, born from brutality. They are made of the same debris that first attacked the Sun 4.5 million years ago. These materials pulverized each others in a series of violent collisions and eventually formed the Moon, the Earth.

This is where we find ourselves, standing upon it on the improbable, violent planet that grew into a world full of trees, tenderness, and violence. It is a conscious world. A world shaped by physics and animated by art, by poetry, by music and mathematics — the different languages we have developed to listen to reality and speak it back to ourselves.

We are here, speaking in the different aspects of our fundamental wonderment: It isWhat is the point of all this? This byproduct of reality we call life: not probable, not even necessary, and yet it is all we know, because it is all we are, and it is with the whole of what we are that we reckon with reality, that we long to fathom it — from the scale of gluons to the scale of galaxies, from the mystery of the cell to the mystery of the soul.

Every once in a while — perhaps once or twice a century, if we are lucky — atoms shed by dying stars constellate into a living mind so shimmering, so uncommonly gifted in multiple fathoming-languages, that poems and paintings, elegies and equations, theorems and songs spring from it with equal ardor and equal beauty. Rebecca Elson was one. Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) was another — a Nobel-winning physicist, a philosopher, an artist, composer of the world’s most lyrical footnote and most bittersweet love letter, who saw no boundary between knowledge and mystery, between our different modes of fathoming reality and serenading the wonder of the universe that made us.

Feynman was a ten-year old when he took to the podium at The National Academy of Sciences, to discuss the science’s value. Midway through his characteristically eloquent and intellectually elegant lecture, addressing the country’s most orthodox audience of academic scientists, he burst into what can best be described as a splendid prose-poem about the mystery and wonder of life, inspired by a reflective moment he spent alone on the edge of the sea, where Rachel Carson too found the meaning of life. It later became the epilogue to Feynman’s final collection of autobiographical reflections, What Do You Care What Other People Think? Public library, published in the year following his death.

CalTech lecturer Richard Feynman

Here’s the final installment in The animated Universe in Verse. This time, we have the legendary cellist and Silkroad founder. Yo-Yo Ma — one of the most boundlessly curious and wonder-smitten minds I know, who knew Feynman and shares with him a passionate appreciation of science as the native poetry of reality — brings this prose-poem to life in a soulful, symphonic reading, animated by artist and designer Kelli Anderson (who previously animated Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” at the second annual Universe in Verse in 2018 and Amanda Palmer’s reading of “Hubble Photographs: After Sappho” by Adrienne Rich at the third live show in 2019).

Radiating from it all — from Feynman’s words, from Yo-Yo’s music, from Kelli’s animation — is what Feynman himself once told Yo-Yo: “Nature has the greatest imagination of all.”

Richard Feynman

Standing alone at the shore, I start to think. 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. The sea can roar like a mite.

All molecules are rearranged deep in the ocean until new complex patterns emerge. 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 the 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 following chapters were previously published in the series. Chapters 1 and 2 are about the origins and evolution of life. Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell’s work and the beauty of cosmic perspective. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on Emmy Noether and symmetry. Chapter 7 is about the science and art of alternate endings. Janna Levin, W.H. Auden; Chapter 8 (nonhuman consciousness, the wonders of octopus Intelligence, Sy Montgomery, and Marilyn Nelson).

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