Yesterday, thanks to a conversation with my friend Eric McDowell, I found the quote below by my favorite physicist, Richard Feynman (1918-1988). (Doesn't everyone have a favorite physicist? Who is yours?) Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project and later (1965) won the Nobel Prize for his work in the field of quantum electrodynamics (don't ask me). In 1986, he served on the panel investigating the Challenger disaster; he was the one who discovered the link between cold temperatures and the failure of the 0-ring gaskets. During the hearing, he surreptitiously dropped an 0-ring held in a metal clamp into a glass of ice water -- while a witness was testifying that the cold had no impact on the ability of the O-rings to maintain their shape and thus integrity. As the witness concluded his testimony, Feynman pulled the O-ring out of the water and removed the metal clamp; the O-ring stayed as compressed and distorted as if the clamp were still in place. It was a simple experiment that demonstrated in dramatic and undeniable terms how fatally wrong NASA's judgment had been.
Feynman was a great character. Besides being a brilliant scientist, he was a painter, a great connoissuer of practical jokes, a passionate bongo player, a juggler, and a prolific author. Some of his books for the general public include Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!,What Do You Care What Other People Think?, and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. He was one of those people whose fascination with the universe was unending; despite his success in his field, despite his Nobel Prize, he said in a letter written near the end of his life, ""I was born not knowing, and have only had a little time to change that here and there." He also recognized that scientific knowledge and wisdom are two different things: "One does not, by knowing all the physical laws as we know them today, immediately obtain an understanding of anything much." To someone who almost blew up the chemistry lab and was recommended not to take physics by her high school guidance counselor, this is very appealing.
To one of his lectures, Feynman added this footnote:
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere gobs of gas atoms. Nothing is "mere." I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination - stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern - of which I am a part - perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the "why?" It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
A very good question, I think.
A recent book that does just this is A. Van Jordan's Quantum Lyrics, which blends reflections on race in America with poems that connect the laws of physics and the human heart. Here is Jordan's take on Feynman's lectures:
Richard P. Feynman Lecture:
Symmetry walks between two worlds. To the hands it tries to
touch us from either side; to the feet, it simply wants us not to
stumble but to saunter; and to the heart, it gives as much as it
takes. Protons have neutrons; matter has antimatter. It's all a
negotiation of will, a charade of dominance and submission, and
we play like adults play with memories of our youth. We believe
that love is equal to hate, but nothing is perfectly symmetic.
Why, for example, does the earth orbit elliptically, as if these old
hands had drawn the path, instead of following an elegant circle.
In the city of Nikko, Japan, stands the Yomei-mon gate.
Elaborate in design, the gate has princes and lions and nymphs
and other elements carved in -- what appears to be, at least --
perfect symmetry. But, if you look closely, you'll notice that one
of the princes is carved upside down. And if you ask the people
of Nikko why, they will tell you that it's carved so the gods
won't get jealous of the perfection of man. But I put the mirror
up to that statement and say the laws of nature are nearly
symmetrical because God didn't want to make man jealous of
And in the mirror, the clock ticks a little slower, the heart beats a
little delayed. Watch the hand touch your face and, for a
moment, one hand brushes both cheeks at once. But then you
begin to pick the body apart: one foot is longer than the other,
one breast hangs a little lower, one eye winks and the other can
only blink, and, suddenly, you're not the woman you thought you
were. But then you look at a tree growing cherries or a flower
sating a bee and you count the branches or the petals and you
realize nothing is as beautiful as you once believed. And through
our eyes we continue coveting our reflections: The blade of
grass wants to be a rapier; the clouds want to be smoke circles
blown over the lips; the eclipse wants to bring back the light.
During Feynman's time at Alamagordo NM in the '40s, his wife Arline was dying of tuberculosis. Before the Manhattan Project was completed, she died. In 1996, Matthew Broderick produced, directed, and starred in the movie, "Infinity," based on Feyman's writings about his childhood and this time in his life. Here is the opening scene of the movie, with Peter Reigert as Mel, Feynman's father.