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In my office of hallowed halls

I sit staring at sullied paper,

Seeking answers that do not yet exist,

That no one can give me,

One fist to chin for thinking,

One hand to pencil for scribbling.

What is the world made of?

The question taunts me, haunts me, consumes me.

For this, they call me a scientist.

They may call me whatever they like,

I am blind to their lives,

Dinner parties and rock concerts, funerals and global politics

I notice as a sprinter notices a beetle:

I am consumed.

What is the world made of?

On the paper, numbers and symbols are another Road to Nowhere,

Calculations are the judge, jury, and executioner of my hypothesis,

Another sandcastle wiped away by the implacable waves of Reality,

Heartless Nature does not care how much I have fallen in love with my ideas.

The paper holds my dead brainchild.

Other trinkets on my desk are not so painful on my eyes:

A miniature calendar, frozen in a time long passed,

A snow globe more dust than snow,

A book full of puzzles,

Gifts from colleagues that serve as my background.

Perhaps it comforts them to deliver these to me,

Yet their motivation little enters my thoughts,

Though I wish them no harm — I wish them nothing at all.

I only wish to know,

What is the world made of?

Stars and space and spiders and snakes,

Light and fire and gears and wires,

So many things, and so many kinds of things,

Energy and solids and life and knowledge,

Nature is the Technicolor Dreamcoat,

Sprawling but One.

Big things, little things, thoughtful things, dead things, things of no matter at a —

Fire, stark and purposeful, blazes a path through the fog,

I turn my back on that horrible Road to Nowhere,

The flame reveals a single wooden plank dangling tentatively in the sky,

I leap onto it, and another plank reveals itself,

Then another, and another.

I cannot hesitate, lest the inspiration fade and

I fall from the wooden path,

Scribbling continues,

Thoughts rampage over virgin territory,

My question was the wrong one,

And I will mourn in due time,

But now I’ve found its superior,

And must capture that fleeting jewel before

It retreats back into the shadows.

Thoughts turn to lead turn to patterns on paper,

If some things are made of matter and others are not,

There must be a way to tell.

Perhaps the world is of two substances?

But how to tell them apart?

What is the difference between a blade of grass and moonlight?

Rickety planks continue to emerge from the fog,

Chaotic spacing from one to the next,

Nor is their direction singular,

But I cannot stop pacing ahead…

Grass is tangible, weighable,

Moonlight is of another dimension, ethereal,

Grass can be torn and shredded into a thousand little green life-shards,

Moonlight is implacable, unyielding to my tools…

Indivisible?

The planks grow ever feebler beneath my feet,

Although I cannot see ahead, the end must be near,

For otherwise I will surely fall.

On to the next, my dizziness suggests a spiral path,

Closing in…

Is the world made of two substances?

One divisible, one not?

Lead scratches symbols on stale paper,

Question leads to conjecture,

Conjecture to consequence,

Consequence to criticism…

No more planks beneath my feet.

I’m at the foot of an unfamiliar forest,

No fog,

So much to explore.

What is the world made of?

It was a bad question.

But I’ve birthed a new child in its stead,

One more complex than the previous,

Or so it seems for now.

Why are there divisible and indivisible substances?

The start of a new adventure,

This new forest could be as insular as the other,

But I am not God,

I am a scientist,

So I must sprint headlong into these virgin lands.

But the day is done,

Mind and body spent,

Pencil dropped, hands freed,

Dearest Nature, my unrequited love,

I will seek you in the morning,

And I smile,

For it could be the day I find you.

Writer for Quillette, Areo, Physics World, and others| Science, history, philosophy, and economics | @ChipkinLogan

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