It is often thought that art and science require two different types of mindsets –diametrically opposite to each other in nature: one logical, dissecting and rational and the other imaginative, aesthetic and emotional. Yet can a mind poetic have premonition of the coming concepts in science?
Subramanya Bharathi was a bard for the freedom of India and also sang against the evils of social stagnation which he saw around in the society. His poetry also sang the spiritual ecstasy that transcend all narrow barriers of caste, creed and gender. He did not live to see his fortieth birthday. A poet who heralded the renaissance of his society, he naturally envisioned the technological advances for his society. His techno-prophecy saw a live telecast of conferences in the universities of North India hinting video interaction with the scholars of South India. He wished Indian nation success in lunar studies and also to perfect the technology of waste disposal. Even these techno-prophecies seem dwarfed by another vision of his.
Hounded by an alien government for daring to speak of freedom and shunned by his own community for his progressive poetry, sitting somewhere in the then stagnant South Indian society, the poet dreamed of a hypothesis that modern science would speak of only after more than half a century after his death. Yes, here is a poet who anticipated the advancement of science – not just in terms of creating a technological wish list but also in capturing the essence of a paradigm shift
In the early 1960s, James Lovelock a bio-physicist then in contract with NASA, was studying the spectroscopic analysis of the planet Mars. He was wondering about the possibility of life on Mars. Then it struck him that if such life exists on Mars, it would show on the nature of the Martian atmosphere and based on this he predicted that Mars would not harbour the kind of life, as we know it here on earth.
Slowly and steadily he was inching towards a revolutionary idea that the life on a planet and its physio-chemical composition would be so organically united that it would be hard to tell where one ends and where the other begins. He started studying the geo-cycles of the planet like the water cycle, carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle etc. He discovered that life plays a very important role in all these cycles that they can very well be considered as some sort of planetary metabolic pathways!
Meanwhile another microbiologist Dr. Lynn Margulis was arriving at the same conclusion at another end of the spectrum – virtually inside the cell. Her theory, then a revolutionary concept and now an accepted textbook doctrine, is called Endo-symbiosis. According to her all ‘higher’ animal and plant cells which have membrane enclosed inner cell organelles like Mitochondria (which helps in cellular metabolism) or Chloroplasts (organelles which are responsible for photosynthesis), are actually colonies of primitive microbes which have created mutually beneficial relationships –living within a cell and shedding away unnecessary aspects of individual existence.
Her theory is validated by the fact that primordial micro organisms (called prokaryotes) have circular DNA just like the mitochondria and chloroplasts, which though they are cellular organelles also contain circular DNA – a telltale sign that they could have been once individual microorganisms before they became part of the cells of larger organism.
Independently developed in the opposite ends of the spectrum of the phenomenon called life, the theory burst forth upon the scientific community and subsequently public psyche as the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis. Gaia is the name of the ancient Greek Goddess of Earth. In their view life became a planetary process – Gaia – a self-regulating goddess of whom we are all part of a larger whole. To quote Lynn Margulis,
’What is life?’ is a linguistic trap. To answer according to the rules of grammar, we must supply a noun, a thing. But life on Earth is more like a verb. It is a material process, surfing over matter like a strange slow wave. It is a controlled artistic chaos, a set of chemical reactions so staggeringly complex that more than four billion years ago it began a sojourn that now, in human form, composes love letters and uses silicon computers to calculate the temperature of matter at the birth of the universe.
James Lovelock, speculating on the origin of Gaia, is even more poetic:
Life does more than adapt to the earth; it changes it and evolution is a tight-coupled dance with life and the material environment partners and from the dance emerges the entity Gaia.
(James Lovelock, Homage to Gaia: the life of an independent scientist, Oxford University Press, 2001, p.2)
Now what does all this have to do with Subramanya Bharathi who died almost thirty five years before James Lovelock even got his first hint of Gaia?
Perhaps if ever a history of ideas is written in a universal manner with no bias of culture and no binary wall separating art and science, then Bharathi would qualify as the originator of Gaia hypothesis as much as James Lovelock. Here are the verses of Bharathi on the phenomenon of life:
Oh Life who knows your magnificence
You are a living deity
You set all rules
And you dissolve all rules
You are the physical elements
You are the manifesting principle of all things that manifest
You function as the change in all that changes
The flying insect, the killing tiger, the crawling worm
The uncountable forms of all living beings that constitute
That is you – Oh life!
We meditate upon all those forms of life that permeate land, water and air.
Unseen by our naked eyes there exist in a square feet of atmosphere millions of microorganisms.
A macro-organism and in its body are smaller organisms and in each of them still smaller organisms and in them each still smaller organisms and in this way the whole planet thrives with life.
Macro-organism- and containing it a bigger form and containing it is still bigger organism and so on and minute particle and inside still minute and still and so on.
And in both the directions there is no end and it moves on to infinity in both directions.
Oh seers, In the dawn as we wake up, let us venerate life.
Namaste Vayu thvameva prathyaksham Brahmasi
(Bharathi, Prose-poetry: 15)
Here is poetic imagination gleaning a truth that nature veils with her diverse appearances and which science would take decades to reveal. For comparison let us see what James Lovelock has to say:
Physicists agreed that life is an open system. But like one of those Russian dolls which enclose a series of smaller and still smaller dolls, entities diminish but grow ever intense as the inward progression goes from Gaia to ecosystems, to plants and animals to cells and to DNA. The boundary of the planet then circumscribes a living organism, Gaia, a system made up of all living things and their environment. There is no clear distinction anywhere on the Earth’s surface between living and non-living matter.
(James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia: A Biography of Our Living Earth, Oxford University Press, 2000, p.39)
In fact Bharathi puts in the palm of his poetry the very pulse of the Gaia hypothesis:
In that little leaf that moves does Life abide? Yes.
Does that roaring sea-water roar so because of Life? Yes.
This planetary ball rotates unceasingly.
She has life that can never be emptied.
In her body divine everything has life.
The whole planet rotates.
The moon also revolves around.
The sun too whirls.
Millions of miles and beyond Million of miles and beyond
And even far beyond all those million upon millions of miles
Countless stars swirl and continue to swirl.
So, this earth has life.
And what we call air is the breath of the planet.
(Bharathi, Prose-poetry: 13)
For James Lovelock too, despite his stray thoughts of systemic nature of life and earth, Gaia as a full formed theory came in a flash – perhaps a scientist’s equivalent of poetic vision. Lovelock explains
The idea of “Gaia” was born in my mind in 1965 while I was at NASA in the Jet Propulsion Labs. It was a personal revelation, an idea that suddenly appeared like a flash of enlightenment. I was talking to Dian Hitchcock, an author-consultant there at the time, about the extreme difference between the atmospheres of Earth and Mars. As I was observing that Earth has such a reactive, unstable atmosphere, it suddenly dawned on me that an extremely unstable atmosphere could not stay constant unless something was regulating it. Somehow life keeps our atmosphere constant and favorable for organisms. Life on Earth not only created our atmosphere; it also regulates it.”
Lovelock, a scientist living at the edge of technology-saturated society and academically orthodox community immersed in reductionism and Bharathi a poet who lived in a society chained by colonial rule and immersed in social stagnation – yet both dared to embrace and comprehend the secrets of the Galaxies and wonders within the cells, with visions that belonged to future.
And in Bharathi we are ushered into Third culture, long before science historian CP Snow wrote those words.
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