Richard Feynman

May 8, 2005

There are a lot of extraordinary phenomena whose distinctive mark is their ordinariness. What we call “ordinary decency,” for instance, really belongs to the set of extraordinary things. We talk about falling in love as if it were a commonplace, but in fact a loving relationship that stands the test of time is a rare thing. M. Scott Peck once made the somewhat counterintuitive claim that while the fact of disease is stark and frightening, what is perhaps more amazing is that people don’t get sick a good deal more often than they do. When you think about the fallibility of our bodies, the vulnerabilities of our immune systems, and the multitude of pathogens, why should we consider illness the anomaly and health the norm? He noted that psychologists can take a mental illness in a patient and show how it stems from various kinds of privation in childhood. But if you turned it around – studied all the people who suffered from the same privations and watched to see if they developed mental illness – how many would you find who recovered quickly, or were never incapacitated at all?

I don’t know why Richard Feynman should provoke these thoughts, exactly. He strikes me as someone who embodied a lot of homely virtues – integrity, smarts, good looks, charm, a quick wit – and yet he became a kind of superstar. Quite rightly, I think, because it’s rare that these things converge in one person who then goes on to arouse affection rather than bitter envy. Let’s stop a moment and note that Feynman used his gifts to their utmost, loved well, tried to be kind, tried not to take himself too seriously… and in many other ways his life constitutes a rebuke to the notion that human existence is mundane, dreary, without trajectory, without hope. This is not to say that he was a saint or that was a particularly happy person at all times. He is what I’d call a sign of the Kingdom – a lively demonstration that the redemption of the human race and the renewal of the earth is not only imaginable, not merely possible, but already present in flashes of brilliance.

There’s a piece in the Times today – his daughter has edited a collection of his letters.

“Work hard to find something that fascinates you,” he wrote to a student. “When you find it you will know your lifework. A man may be digging a ditch for someone else, or because he is forced to, or is stupid – such a man is ‘toolish’ – but another working even harder may not be recognized as different by the bystanders – but he may be digging for treasure. So dig for treasure and when you find it you will know what to do.”

Kate Zernike, the author of the book review, writes:

A father from Alaska asked for help in directing his 16-year-old stepson – “a bit overweight, a little shy” and “no genius you understand, but a lot smarter than I am in math and such.” Feynman told the man to have patience – “Let him go, let him get all distorted studying what interests him the most as much as he wants” – and to take father-and-son walks in the evening, “and talk (without purpose or routes) about this and that.” He had no good way, he wrote, to make the boy figure out what he wanted in life. “But to fall in love with a wonderful woman and to talk to her quietly in the night will do wonders.”

One letter writer implied that Feynman’s playing the bongo drums made a physicist “human.” His response is blistering and wonderful: “Theoretical physics is a human endeavor, one of the higher developments of human beings – and this perpetual desire to prove that people who do it are human by showing that they do other things that a few other humans do (like playing bongo drums) is insulting to me. I am human enough to tell you to go to hell.”

In 1946, over a year after his wife’s death, he wrote to her. “I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead. But I still want to comfort and take care of you – and I want you to love and take care of me… You can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else. But I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.”

Zernike notes that Feynman’s daughter describes this letter as more worn than the others – as if he had taken it out and reread it repeatedly.


One Response to “Richard Feynman”

  1. David Says:

    I have always found it fascinating that “humanitas,” the rarest trait among people, eventually became derived into the English language as the word human. It is fascinating that it is the rare human that demonstrates humanity.

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