Professor Brian Cox, British particle physicist, once D:ream band member (do you remember this 1997 Labour Party campaign theme? he played the keyboard) and now superstar TV presenter, has been keeping me (and millions of others) enthralled each Sunday evening on BBC Two with the ‘Wonders of Life’. It’s visually beautiful, it’s factually interesting and it’s thought-provoking. (Last night saw the last episode but you can catch them all on the BBC’s fantastic iPlayer.)
He’s rather obsessed with carbon is Prof Cox. Well, as a physicist you’re likely to be: physically, every living thing is made of the same basic stuff (not the technical language, I’m sure). That stuff? Carbon. Now I know we’re more than carbon but basically, physically, everything that lives – trees, amoebas, meerkats, horses, you – we’re all made of the same basic carbon atoms. And there’s only so much of that stuff in the universe. Like energy. There’s a fixed amount of energy in the world, it cannot be destroyed or created, only re-created. Amazing really.
When talking to colleagues about the programme last week, Casi mentioned a letter DH Lawrence wrote to Edward Garnett, which mentions carbon. Later on that day she emailed me an extract from it:
You mustn’t look in my novel for the old stable ego – of the character. There is another ego, according to whose action the individual is unrecognisable, and passes through, as it were, allotropic states which it needs a deeper sense than any we’ve been used to exercise, to discover states of the same radically unchanged element. (Like as diamond and coal are the same pure single element of carbon. The ordinary novel would trace the history of the diamond – but I say, ‘Diamond, what! This is carbon.’ And my diamond might be coal or soot, and my theme is carbon.)
And so is Cox’s. What they’re both getting at – in different ways – is that there are basic building blocks that run so very, very deep throughout the universe that are infinitesimally small, beyond the ‘normal’ scope. What sets humans apart from their other carbon counterparts though is the amazingly complex thought patterns and acts of creative intelligence, which, for example, lead to great works of literature. I try to understand the world I live in through literature, I also try to understand it through physics (I find it easier to get delve into literary thinking than quantum mechanical thinking but there we go…).
Thanks to Cox, Lawrence and Casi for bringing it together for me. In homage to the ‘Wonders of Life’, here’s a poem from DH Lawrence (and a photograph from a summer’s walk in Devon):
by DH Lawrence
The dawn was apple-green,
The sky was green wine held up in the sun,
The moon was a golden petal between.
She opened her eyes, and green
They shone, clear like flowers undone
For the first time, now for the first time seen.