But it’s still an amazing achievement. Lucretius chose poetry as a medium to explain the universe through the lens of Epicurean philosophy, much of which is quite modern: atheistic, materialistic, logical. His oft-repeated refrain is:
Our terrors and our darknesses of mindMany of his deductions have since been proven empirically: atoms, void, even the conservation of matter. To have figured this out just by thinking about it? Wow.
Must be dispelled then, not by sunshine’s rays,
Not by those shining arrows of the light,
But by insight into nature, and a scheme
Of systematic contemplation.
And then there’s the swerve. In Lucretius’s (pretty accurate, at least to my non-physicist lights) view, the world consists of different kinds of atoms flying about, colliding and recolliding until they hit upon a useful combination. What keeps them from falling into patterns, always mixing the same way, is the swerve—the element of randomness that causes the universe. It’s a charming and mysterious way to characterize the chance and chaos that sometimes coalesces into order. Here, have a helpful illustration from my long-ago title page! I think it really says it all.