In a lifetime of reading, there are few books I have loved more than Willard Gibbs: American Genius (public library) by the poet Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913–February 12, 1980): her magnificent more-than-biography of the lonely forgotten visionary whose work shaped a century of science by bridging classical mechanics and quantum physics — the story not only of a person and his far-reaching legacy, but the story of a country, a century, a global epoch of scientific creativity that colored every realm of the human imagination and aspiration, from poetry to politics.
Radiating centripetally from Gibbs’s life is the birth and maturation of America — the country, the character, the creative spark.
From the beginnings… we have been heretics and axiom-breakers, willful outcasts, exiles. We are a nation of eager refugees; we were planted as that. When the seaboard was settled, and a second generation learned a sense of place, and the new desires arrived, sweeping westward, the desire for unity came, too. Unity, at any cost. Integration was the word of the Puritans. To integrate themselves they were willing to amputate emotions, the complexity in which the mortal mixes himself and mires himself and grows; they were willing to amputate, or they would never have sailed, and broken with the mother world.
We were freemen set on a crusade, members of the largest tribe ever banded together by purpose, and growing with a velocity never before known, according to the rules of a violent and lonesome status quo.
But out of that loneliness, out of that amputation, arose a new vitality, a fierce creative spark that took shape in America’s first great love: science. Rukeyser writes:
The reception of work in science in this country has always been a reliable indication of the American attitude toward all creative effort. In the double and mixed reaction is our mirror of the acceptance and rejection of imagination.
From this fundament of national character — occluded today by the rampant untruth and antiscientific attitudes of our liminal epoch, but still there beneath it all — she wrests a larger truth about the essence of American creativity:
The American genius has been the spirit of foreboding, of foreshadowing and combining… With the foreboding… went other essentially tragic qualities of waste and conquest and the application of these to a new earth. Fighting these went the rare men and women who could capture the clues and in their flashes of knowledge see combining grace, the virtue of form. So often formless, so often a chaos without shape, thought in this country — the wish of the country — has known a sunken tradition of one of the deepest desires: the wish to meet formlessness, evil, dissolution, and to find their place in form. Our greatest works as well as our greatest vulgarities have started here. Our giantism which is our disease is not only a reflection of a huge country and a huge effort, but of this; our immense expeditions and engineering achievements, the books and skyscrapers and flying fortresses, have some of this; and the pomp of acceptance as well as the smashing gestures of rejection perhaps all depend on hidden kinship with this chaos, and kinship in the wish to strike it down in thought.
She considers the two different types of creators who built the country — who build the world daily — and the two distinct time-scales on which their creative power and their legacy play out:
Those who did nothing but write, on bits of paper, formulas and single concepts and poems, symptoms of an abstract burning of the brain… would in all probability not be within a lifetime… The inventors were justified almost overnight. It takes a little longer for some of the others. America [in its first century] was deeply engrossed with space; it cared rather less for time.
With an eye to the parallel creative processes of poetry and science, Rukeyser zooms out into the largest truth about all creativity:
Creation is a delicate and experimental thing. The process of combining depends on experimentation. Knowledge and effective action here become one gesture; the gesture of understanding the world and changing it.
Complement with Rukeyser on what it means to be alive and the source of our strength in times of trouble, then revisit Jill Lepore on how the shift from mythology to science shaped the early dream of democracy and the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on the parallel psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science.