Yesterday, I saw a television documentary about Richard Feynman. At the very end, his sister describes him, lying in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. She saw him gesturing with his hands and the nurse said: “He is making involuntary movements, he is unconscious.”But his sister knew him very well and she described how he made the movements of a magician, preparing for a trick. He was looking upon the moment of his own death with curiosity.
So, who was this guy?
Feynman has said so many quotable things that it would be easy to refer the reader to those and leave it at that. But I am the one blogging here, so I have made some choices. I will let him introduce himself:
“On the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics.”
Statement after an introduction mentioning that he played bongo drums, when lecturing at Cornell University.
Feynman was a physicist, he worked at Los Alamos when he was very young and he worked on quantum electrodynamics (QED) and many other questions when he was older. He received a physics Nobel in 1965. I remember seeing a picture of a Feynman diagram on David Yerle’s excellent science blog. Please go there at once before you even think I am going to tell you anything interesting about physics! (And then you may come back here to look at the stars.)In the documentary, Feynman’s daughter recalls how they had the diagrams painted on the family car. People used to interpret the images as examples of Indian art, until one guy stopped them at Mac Donald’s and asked: “Why is your car covered in Feynman diagrams?” Feynman’s wife said: “Because we are the Feynmans.”
science and art
Feynman was genuinely interested in visual arts and music. He traded physics lessons for art lessons with an artist he knew and he was seen in a strip bar drawing naked ladies and scribbling mathematical equations on a napkin.
He asked: “Can a scientist really enjoy the beauty of a flower?” and answered in the affirmative.
“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs 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. What is the pattern or the meaning or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little more about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artist of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”
I have looked at this quote and I wholeheartedly agree with the question that is asked of today’s poets. Still, I cannot help but think the Ancients knew the stars in ways that were more intimate than we do now, and not only because to them they seemed to be much closer.
I have been to the Atacama desert (Chile) and looked at the stars from my sleeping bag and I have sat on a wooden fishing boat in Thailand and seen the stars come out in the darkening sky. And though I am amazed by NASA’s pictures, I would sooner equate my personal experience on those occasions to Van Gogh’s Starry Night.However, it may be possible that I think of this particular painting because it is so close to what I see when I look at the stars with naked eyes: that is, without my glasses. On a more serious note: I do believe it is possible that an artist translates, rephrases the mysteries of nature in a way that we can understand on an emotional level. Bridging the lightyears-wide gap that science has put between the stars and ourselves.
“For far more marvelous is the truth than any artist of the past imagined it.”
Feynman said this, but should we believe it? What is the nature of scientific truth? What do you think?
Maybe the most important thing Feynman did was pointing out again and again that we are never far removed from the great mysteries of life when we do science. And that science resembles art in that respect.
“What I cannot create, I do not understand.”
Written on his blackboard at the time of his death in 1988.