|English: Book 1, page 1, of De Rerum Natura by Titus Lucretius Carus, from the 1675 edition by Tanaquil Faber (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
The New York Times
On August 13, 2013, The New York Times published a letter to the Editor by Dr. Arthur Lavin on a topic of science.
Here is the link:
The letter was in response to an article in the Science Times about the notion that everything in the universe is made out of the same stuff- atoms. That is, the atoms in stars, in trees, in rivers, in Saturn's rings, in birds, and in us, are exactly the same material.
The Times article noted that the first person to make such a claim made it in 1929.
My letter noted that this notion, that we are all made of the same stuff, actually goes back over 2,400 years to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who developed the original notion of atoms made by Democritus over 2,500 years ago. The notion that stars, tables, and humans are all made of exactly the same material was deeply offensive to many religions early in their history, leading to a vilification of Epicurus.
That is why we tend to think of his thinking as simply promoting a life of pleasure, hence the phrase Epicurean. But Epicurus was not a hedonist, he was a very thoughtful philosopher whose core thought was indeed that we are all made out of atoms, that the atoms themselves are forever. But they tend to aggregate into various forms that are temporary. Some of these forms work well, some do not. Those that work well continue, and so he was the first person to write about natural selection and evolution. He did speak about pleasure, but his thought was that it is so extraordinary that of all ways atoms could combine, some form living beings, and against all odds, some form each of us. The moral of his view of things was that to be alive is so extraordinary, that each of us should be profoundly grateful to be alive and take pleasure in this tremendous gift. This was the pleasure he promoted, not hedonism.
Epicurus' philosophy was expressed in a magnificent poem by the Roman Lucretius about 2100 years ago, in a piece called De Rerum Natura. The reaction to Epicurus philosophy was so extreme that nearly every copy of this masterpiece was destroyed. For over a thousand years it was forgotten, until its rediscovery in a remote German monastery by a great Italian bibliophile in the 1400's. The rediscovery of this poem inspired thinkers across Europe, and revived the notion that we are of the same stuff as all else. Many credit the power of this idea coming back into European minds as a great source of the power of the Renaissance. We know, for example the poem had a great impact on Galileo and helped propel him towards his discoveries, which in turn created the foundation for modern science.
Lately science has gotten a bad rap. Certain products of science pose great risks to us, including military technology, nuclear reactors. Others cause great worry such as genetically altered foods. And science seems behind the relentless creation of products that continue to be hawked such as prescription drugs.
But science is also the entire basis of all the extraordinary benefits of modern life. We now live over twice as long as people did, as recently as 1900. Our children now live to adulthood nearly free of the once nearly universal threat of disease. Food is more abundant than ever in history. We live in clean homes that are adjusted to stay at a comfortable temperature the year round. And the explosion of information and innovation allows me to write this essay and have it available to everyone in the world with the stroke of one button.
So, enjoy the brief letter. It is a reminder that science was not always allowed to flourish in human societies. I do think we live in an era where science is vulnerable. Let the story of Epicurus and Lucretius remind us that we can only count on science continuing to help us live well if we defend the very idea of science.
Dr. Arthur Lavin
All the information regarding Epicurus and Lucretius in this essay is credited to Stephen Greenblatt and his book The Swerve. This is perhaps one of the most interesting and powerful books about science and humanity I have read.
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