Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Classic Feynman

I'm now reading Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character. It brings together stories from two of Feynman's bestsellers Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. There are some new material and it comes with an audio CD of Richard Feynman delivering a lecture, and it makes all the difference to hear his voice first and then read his stories. Feynman was, of course, a great physicist; but his books sold not because of his Nobel prize, but because his irrepressible character, candour and wit shone through his stories. It's quite impossible not to like him from reading the books, or to be inspired by his love for science, for the truth and for solving problems.

I'd read one of the books previously. But, strangely, this time around, I was particularly moved by this poignant passage from his essay about his first wife, Arlene, who died from an incurable illness. They had married shortly after she was diagnosed with the illness:
If a Martian (who, we'll imagine, never dies except by accident) came to Earth and saw this peculiar race of creatures - these humans who live about seventy or eighty years, knowing that death is going to come - it would look to him like a terrible problem of psychology to live under those circumstances, knowing that life is only temporary. Well, we humans somehow figure out how to live despite this problem: we laugh, we joke, we live.

The only difference for me and Arlene was, instead of fifty years, it was five years. It was only a quantitative difference - the psychological problem was just the same. The only way it would have become any different is if we had just said to ourselves, "But those other people have it better, because they might live fifty years." But that's crazy. Why make yourself miserable saying things like, "Why do we have such bad luck? What has God done to us? What have we done to deserve this?" - all of which, if you understand reality and take it completely into your heart, are irrelevant and unsolvable. They are just things that nobody can know. Your situation is just an accident of life.
It is poignant for me because he not only recognised the fundamental fact of life, but somehow, could deal with it in a logical, detached way.

1 comment:

  1. I was just looking for this quote, brilliant.
    Feynman is my hero.

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