A physicist eulogises…

If you’re gonna die, die with your boots on
If you’re gonna try, well, stick around
Gonna cry, just move along
If you’re gonna die, you’re gonna die

from Iron Maiden’s Die With Your Boots On. Track 4 (Side 1) of Piece of Mind (EMI, 1983). Songwriters: Smith, Harris, Dickinson

On Friday I had the great pleasure of chatting with the dynamic duo of Olivier Larvor and Keith Clarke for their Death Hangout podcast. Notwithstanding the podcast moniker, it was a fun, upbeat, and rather uplifting conversation. (I kid you not. Cross my heart and hope to die..)  Here are Olivier (L) and Keith (R), with their friend, the not-so-Grim Reaper (who disappointingly didn’t put in an appearance on Friday).


Find out more about their intriguing podcast and the associated upcoming book here.

Olivier, Keith and I chatted about the physics of death (with some departures here and there to muse over such themes as rules for life (apparently there’s about a dozen of them), quantum woo, and the broader connotations of the second law of thermodynamics). It’ll take a while for the podcast to be uploaded as Olivier and Keith will have to summon their editing and production demons. In the meantime I wanted to post the eulogy at the foot of this post, which I stumbled across while I was doing some homework for the podcast. As a humanist and a physicist I find it incredibly moving.

I was also invited to a second “Death Hangout” podcast recorded on Friday. The guest this time was Jon Wiederhorn (pictured below), a highly respected figure in the heavy metal community and the author of a number of hugely entertaining books about the genre and a number of its larger-than-life musicians: Louder than Hell, I’m The Man (the biography of Anthrax’s Scott Ian), and Ministry: The Lost Gospels According To Al Jourgensen.

Embed from Getty Images

Death, of course, is at the very core of so much metal music. (The “die, die, die” refrain in Metallica’s “Creeping Death” immediately creeps to mind but there are so very many examples. A drinking game based on mentions of death in metal songs would have a fairly short half-life due to incipient alcohol poisoning…) When the episode featuring Jon goes live, I’ll link to it here at “Symptoms…”. Jon gave a wonderfully engaging, and indeed some might say life-affirming, overview of the catharsis and excitement that metal can generate, gory and/or morbid lyrics notwithstanding

Anyway, I’ll fade to black for now with that beautiful eulogy from a physicist I mentioned. It’s from an NPR broadcast back in 2005 given by the Chicago-based writer and performer Aaron Freeman

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the conservation of energy, so they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the first law of thermodynamics; that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every Btu of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this world. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.

And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.

And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as he says it. And he will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.

And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they’ll be comforted to know your energy’s still around. According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly. Amen.