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I like Dick

February 15, 2010

Everyone has their heroes, and when you’re a passionate science nerd, as I am, a good hero to have is Richard “Dick” Feynman.  He’s so popular amongst science nerds that it’s almost cliche’ to say you even like him, but the quality of the man overcomes my desire to be on the cutting edge of fandom, and I can’t help myself; I like him anyway. How can you dislike a man whose dying words were, “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”?

You remember Feynman: The ultra-cool, bongo-playing, code-breaking, lock-picking, Nobel Prize winning, chick-magnet, brainiac-supreme from Caltech?   The man who was 60 years ahead of Neil Strauss on the art of “negging”.  The author/subject of dozens of books including “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), “What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character“, and “The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist“, to name but a few.

To say that he was a genius is, while accurate, nevertheless, insufficient.  As Mark Kac worded it in “Enigmas of Chance

“In science, as in other fields of human endeavor, there are two kinds of geniuses: the “ordinary” and the “magicians.”  An ordinary genius is a fellow whom you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better.  There is no mystery as to how his mind works.  Once we understand what they’ve done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it.  It is different with the magicians.  They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are, and the working of their minds is, for all intents and purposes, incomprehensible.  Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark.  They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician’s mind works. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre.

Aside from his legacy as a “curious character”, Feynman’s real legacy was, as Kac implied, in science.  In reviewing the book, “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman“, Michael Lemonik summarizes it very nicely saying,

He was a physicist’s physicist who saw more deeply into the workings of nature than anyone but Einstein and perhaps a handful of others. His greatest achievement was the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which described the behavior of subatomic particles, atoms, light, electricity and magnetism. He also made significant contributions to areas outside his own field, including astrophysics, solid- state physics and computer science — a rare breadth of accomplishment in the rigidly specialized scientific world.

And so today, February 15th, 2010, 22 years to the day after his death, I thought that’d it’d be appropriate to give a little nod to Dick Feynman by sharing with you a couple of things he said and wrote that have meaning to me, and which I hope have meaning to you as well.  Enjoy!

“If you expected science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions about what we are, where we are going what the meaning of the universe is and so on then I think you can easily become disillusioned and then look for some mystic answer to these problems. How a scientist can take a mystic answer I don’t know because the whole spirit is to unders…well never mind that, anyway I don’t understand that…but anyhow…if you think of it though…I..the way i think of what we are doing is, we are exploring, we are trying to find out as much as we can about the world.

People say to me, “Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?” No I am not. I am just looking to find out more about the world. And if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law that explains everything so be it. That would be very nice discovery. If it turns out it’s like an onion with millions of layers and we just sick and tired of looking at the layers then that’s the way it is! But whatever way it comes out it’s nature, it’s there, and she’s going to come out the way she is. And therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we are trying to do except to find out more about it. If you said…but..the problem is why we do you find out more about it, if you thought that you are trying to find out more about it because you are going to get an answer to some deep philosophical question you may be wrong and may be that you can’t get an answer to that particular question by finding out more about the character of the nature.

But I don’t look it at…my interest in science is to simply find out about the world…and the more I find out and…I like to find out…and there are very remarkable mysteries about the fact that we are able to do so many more things and apparently animals can do.

And other questions like that. Those are the mysteries I want to investigate without knowing the answer to them. So …altogether I can’t believe the special stories that’ve been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because they seem to be…too simple, too connected, too local, too provincial. The “earth,” He came to “the earth”, one of the aspects God came to “the earth!” mind you, and look at what’s out there…? how can we…? it isn’t in proportion…!

Anyway it’s no use to argue, I can’t argue. I am just trying to tell you why the scientific views that I have do have some affect on my beliefs. And also another thing has to do with the question of how do you find out if something is true? And if you have all these theories of the different religions and all different theories about the thing then you begin to wonder…once you start doubting… just like you are supposed to doubt, you asked me if science is true, no no we don’t know what is true…no no we don’t know, we are trying ……start out understanding religion by saying everything is possibly wrong, let us see, as soon as you do that you start sliding down an edge which is harder to recover from. And one…so with the scientific view or my father’s view that we should look to see what’s true and what may not be true, once you start doubting ……which I think, to me, is a very fundamental part of my soul is to doubt and to ask, when you doubt and ask it gets a little harder to believe.

You see, one thing, is I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and then many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask, “Why we are here?” and what that question might mean. I might think about it a bit and then if I can’t figure it out then I go on to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t have to…i don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose which is the way it really is as far as I can tell possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.”

Fantastic, no?

I know what you’re thinking.  “But Pants, of course you’d like that particular bit!  You’re a skeptic, an atheist, and a science nerd!”  This is true.  But it’s also true that I have an unexplainable attraction to various forms of irrational mysticism (such as my unabashed declaration of being a “mathematical Platonist”, which if we’re splitting hairs, may or may not be irrational or mystic), to include the fact that I’ve always been a sucker for love stories in which the theme is “eternal love”, for lack of a better term.

Confession & case-in-point: I get a little “teary-eyed & misty” every time I hear that goddamn Collin Raye song, “Love, Me“.  This is the last we shall speak of this.

So you can probably imagine how I reacted when I read a letter that Dick wrote to his wife Arline, who died of Tuberculosis on June 16th, 1945.  Dick wrote the below letter to her in October of 1946, 14 months after she was gone.  Remember, this is a man who does not believe in “god”, who does not believe in life after death, and who does not believe that he will ever see is wife again.  And yet, irrationally, he writes anyway.


I adore you, sweetheart … It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing. But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and what I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you.

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 me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector.

Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures. When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried.

Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want to stand there.

I’ll bet that you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls … and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead,


PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.

Hard to follow that.

Thanks for everything you did Dick.  I know it doesn’t make much sense to write to you, but I know – I know – you’d  understand.


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4 Responses to “ I like Dick ”

  1. Pancake on February 15, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Well-done Mr. Pants…and Dick’s letter to Arline left me gobsmacked. Love the cheeky title as well.

  2. anncine on February 15, 2010 at 11:07 am

    Wonderful post, Pants! Reading “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring ” has inspired me to start working on my last dying words immediately so that I too can leave with a real zinger.

  3. Mr. Smarty Pants on February 15, 2010 at 11:38 am

    Thanks ladies. Cakes, no matter how many time I re-read that letter, it still gets to me.

    Ann, regarding dying words, my plan (if I can time it right) is to say, “I see a light…it’s orange…Oh my GOD…I’M BURNING ALIIIIVE!!!”, and then fake like I’ve passed away only to re-emerge a few seconds later with a “Just kidding”, and THEN pass away for real. The timing, as you can imagine, is critical to whether my dying words are a punchline, or a source of anguish and torment to everyone* near me.

    * Note: Come to think of it, if no family members are around, I may not even go for the punchline. Maybe something like, “No dark lord Satan, do NOT curse everyone in this room! That wasn’t part of our deal! Goddamn yoouu…. [gasp]”


    BTW ladies…just curious, but is the name “Armorall”, or however you spell it…is that still an active clan of writers in the Scottish highlands?

  4. anncine on February 15, 2010 at 2:48 pm

    Since you brought up spelling…mine is Anne :) (with an E.) It is Almirall, but we are a (drunken and sturdy) clan of writers in various locations.