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Lucretius' Cat

Towards a more interconnected view of Learning and Knowledge

Richard Feynman said that the sentence which contained, ‘the most scientific information in the fewest words was "all things are made of atoms".

[and we are accustomed to call] these things the ‘original bodies’, because it is from these

first things that all things arise.’

Long before Schrӧdinger put his cat (hypothetical, don’t panic!) in a lead box with a vial of cyanide and argued it was both dead and alive until we opened the box, there was Lucretius. I have no idea whether he had a cat or not, but he certainly stood near the beginning of atomic theory’s development. This mind-bending, but highly intriguing theory about our natural world finds itself firmly located in the ‘Science’ subject camp, particularly, Physics. But would Lucretius have described himself as a scientist? Would Democritus and Leucippus of the fifth-century BCE, who were credited with possibly the first atomic theories? I think not. As philosophers, yes, specifically, in Lucretius’ case, as an Epicurean and perhaps more surprisingly, as a poet. He wrote the beautiful didactic (teaching) poem, de rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), in the elevated epic hexameter metre. Didactic poetry was not identified as a genre in its own right during ancient times, but what we can identify is a tradition of natural philosophy, topics which would now be considered the property of ‘the Sciences’, being expressed via poetry:

· The pre-Socratics, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Xenophanes wrote didactic poems and

made the metre an integral part of their argument’s expression.

· The Hellenistic Period, roughly, the third-first centuries BCE: Nicander on poisons, though

he seems to have been rather short-rationed as a poet, although his works on poisons and

antidotes remained very influential; Aratus on Phaenomena, a work on astronomy.

If one put the words ‘science’ or ‘physics’ and ‘poetry’ on a piece of paper and gave a student one hour to write on this topic. They may find themselves thinking initially that these are opposites:

· Sciences are rational and fact-based, poetry is about love, battles, wars, and emotions.

· Poetry belongs to arts and humanities; sciences and maths are the hard option, arts and

humanities the soft option.

· Sciences and maths have right or wrong answers, arts and humanities are more subjective.

I certainly do not agree with the second hard/soft option division. The first is a false dichotomy implying a mutual exclusivity that simply does not exist. There is a grain of truth in point three, but it is a far greyer issue than the above implies. What about languages, for example? What I wish to put to you today, using Lucretius as my springboard in effect, is that to see education and subjects purely in terms of subject matter misses the opportunity to discover the rich connections across all subjects:

· Each illuminates the world in a different way

· Each is a quest for knowledge (different focuses admittedly)

· Greater overlap between the skills required than some preconceived ideas suggest.

I am very sure an A Level physics class would sure scoff at the notion of poetry being on their syllabus, or that a poem might be an effective way of writing up their experiments. Lucretius did not. It was an established way of encapsulating and publicising his philosophy. What my argument in essence comes down to is our assumptions about the meaning of the word ‘science’.

Lucretius: Philosopher, Poet, AND Scientist?

nam certe neque consilio primordia rerum

ordine se suo quaeque sagaci mente locarunt

nec quos quaeque darent motus pepigere profecto

sed quia multa modis multis mutata per omne

ex infinito vexantur percita plagis, 1025

omne genus motus et coetus experiundo

tandem deveniunt in talis disposituras,

qualibus haec rerum consistit summa creata;

For assuredly the atoms, or first beginnings, arranged themselves neither by design

each in his own position, nor by a wise intelligence; nor indeed did each predetermine their

own movements; but because there were so many and because they were changed in many

ways they were without limit violently stirred-up and tossed about with blows throughout

the universe; at last by trying out every form of movement and combination they coalesced

into such formations of which this sum of creation is composed.

This is not only logical and strikingly similar to aspects of modern atomic theory. It is an extremely beautiful piece of poetry and Lucretius has made the style serve his argument, as you will see from the coloured annotations in the presentation. The words in bold all refer to or describe the atoms. You can see how Lucretius has produced a scattered effect in the word order to convey the initial random collisions and swift movements of the atoms in all directions, before they settle into formation in the neat ‘haec…summa creata’ (‘this sum of creation’ underlined in the passage).

And I should like to show you just how much Lucretius got right and how much became part of ‘modern’ science. I shall show you a few more passages. The reasoning behind Lucretius’ argument for the existence of atoms reveals clever observation (1.311-321):

A ring on the finger is worn away underneath as the years roll on, and raindrops from the

roof hollow out stone, the hook of the plough made of iron imperceptibly diminishes in

fields, and we see the paving stones worn down by the feet of many people; then near the

gates, the bronze statues show right hands that are being thinned by the frequent touch of t

he passers-by who greet them. We, thus see how things are diminished, when they have

been worn down. But the bodies which depart and when they depart, the grudging nature of

seeing shuts off from our sight.

The wearing down of physical objects through usage, rubbing, weathering, shows something must have come away, particles that we cannot physically see. But we can deduce their presence.

Lucretius also argues that, although atoms can settle into formation, this does not mean they are static; motion is perpetual, and atoms’ constant collision and fission leads to all formation and change in our visible world (2.216-220):

And this, you also need to understand: atoms, since they are carried downwards by their

own mass through the void, each veers off a little from its own space at a completely

uncertain time in entirely unpredictable places; you can call it altered momentum.

We don’t have time for the whole passage, but I think the above makes the point. Finally, we come, briefly, to Lucretius’ astute awareness of the different strengths of bond between atoms, depending on whether in a ‘solid’, liquid, or smoke (2.444-463 with omissions):

And again, things which seem to us hard and compact, must be held together densely joined

by branch-like hooks…

Liquids indeed are made of fluid body, which must be smooth and round in form…for these

round atoms are not held back by one another...

Finally, everything which you see disperse at a moment in time as smoke, clouds, and

flames do, must be the least hindered by their entanglement, even if they are not completely

smooth and round…

I hope I have shown you here is a theory that we would undeniably dub scientific. But I think we should pause to consider what we mean by ‘science’, stepping back from what we call ‘The Sciences’. Classicists will already know that ‘science’ or ‘scientia’ simply means knowledge, the cognate term of the verb ‘scio’ - to know. The verb can refer to knowing facts, but it generally denotes knowledge that is closer to perception and understanding. The cognate adverb ‘scienter’ can be quite accurately translated as ‘wisely’. So, a scientist is one who possesses knowledge or understanding, or even one who seeks knowledge, if we strip the word back to its roots. ‘Scientific’, therefore, comes to refer to the process by which knowledge is sort an acquired. Simply speaking, this is logical reasoning. Logic leads to a hypothesis, justified by premises, tested by experiment or challenge.

Early philosophers were seeking to gain a deeper understanding and explanation of our world, us, our senses, our connection and engagement with the world, no less than Einstein, Hawking, Planck, and of course Schrӧdinger. On this basis one might say that philosophers were the original scientists, the original knowledge seekers and finders. Lucretius shows impressive logic and reasoning in his arguments. Ancient tools were far less advanced, but the product of the thought experiments and reasoning processes of these early scientists are no less valid, even if they were not always right. Nor are scientists nowadays. Let us look at some examples. There was Epicurus himself, whose atomic theory was designed to promote the Epicurean ataraxia, freedom from a troubled soul or mind. Everything came down to ‘matter’. Xenophanes, another pre-Socratic philosopher, who sought by a careful process of critical thinking formulated a theory that ‘lightning is a massive electrical discharge’ and emphasized the role of clouds rather than gods in meteorological phenomena. He was also an early opponent of the anthropological portrayal of deities with their human flaws as were found in Homer and Hesiod; gods must surely be superior. He also believed all peoples depicted gods as looking like themselves, arguing that horses would portray their god as a horse, or lions would draw a lion, etc. He was a major contributor to the rationalist, what we now call, scientific approach: the ability to question and offer an alternative explanation by careful observation and reasoning.[1]

We, therefore, should never lose sight of the connection between science and philosophy, even though philosophy nowadays has for the most part moved away from scientific content. It began as a quest for knowledge and understanding, a love of wisdom, and thanks to that, we have what we call science, not just in terms of the subject matter, but also the process.

Lucretius is also a fine artist. His explanations are conveyed in fine poetic style. But art is not like science surely? It does not obey rules. It is freedom. It is for pleasure. It defies logic. It is not about explanation or teaching. Again, our own preconceptions seem to be getting in the way. In a society used to poetic recitations and a society that regarded epic as the highest form of literature, Lucretius’ choice was conscious one: he chose a medium with which his audience would be familiar and more likely to pay attention to than a weighty volume in prose, and by choosing poetry and the epic metre has elevated his theory to the lofty level of epic, thereby asserting his theme’s importance. Epic allusions and language pepper Lucretius’ stunning poem. But has all this changed? Do we no longer view art in this way?

The notion of art as a medium for science certainly, at first sight, seems a strange, even alien, concept. However, I think we would agree that art is not a hermetically sealed bubble divorced from reality. Far from it. Art responds to the issues of life, reacts against them. Even when it is deeply personal, expression or statement is always there. Certainly, the Greeks and Romans would have thought so. They would take pleasure in art, marvelling at the Acropolis, Pheidias’ beautiful statues, the Pantheon, exquisite mosaics. But they would also be pondering the greatness of Athens, Rome, the values and physique exemplified by the statue of the athlete, the wealth and taste of the owner of the villa with the mosaic. The point is, the art had a message, a statement to make. Art can also be didactic. Pediments would convey heroic stories. In the Medieval period, doom paintings were rather more than scary wonders. They were cautionary tales that brought the teachings of religion to a wider audience. So, if visual art can be a medium for a message or a lesson, why not poetry? When updating this paper with some more examples, I came across an article about artists whose work was inspired by science. Fabian Oefner uses his photography to demonstrate the beauty of scientific processes and phenomena. Jen Stark is inspired by the fractal.[2] Science and beauty meet in nature. One might say, therefore, nature, like Lucretius, is both artist and scientist.

The ancients did not possess our rather rigid subject divisions in terms of arts and sciences. We return to Lucretius again. Describing the advancement of human ability and skills from shipbuilding to sculpture and poetry, he concludes book five as follows (5.1452-1457):

…all these, persistent practice and the experiments of the active mind taught to men as the

advanced, little by little, step by step. And so, time gradually brings each thing to our midst

and reason raises each thing into the realm of the light.

Reason brings human endeavour to its highest state of accomplishment, whether building, art, or science. The same approach of practice channelled by reason underpins them all. Lucretius united philosophy, art, and, as we now call it, science in a work of both the highest intellectual power and exquisite artistry. This suggests that thinking how subjects fit together and contrast and complement each other perhaps deserves a greater place in education than it currently has. Whilst updating this paper for BloggusClassicus, I came across several papers about how the connection between art and science could be effectively incorporated into the classroom. My advice is simple,


The items are in the order in which I would read them if you are new to Lucretius.

(This paper was originally delivered as a talk for St. Swithun's school Academic Lunch. It was a fantastic occasion, 29/09/2021, and I would like to than them for inviting me)

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