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.”

Human hands, by Luisfi [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

Human hands, by Luisfi [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

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 diagrams

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.)

Feynman Diagram, by Persino [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (]

Feynman Diagram, by Persino [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (

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?”

NASA, ESA, and Erich Karkoschka (University of Arizona) (NASA)

NASA, ESA, and Erich Karkoschka (University of Arizona) (NASA)

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.

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night [public domain]

Vincent van Gogh, Starry Night [public domain]

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.


About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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23 Responses to Stargazing

  1. Every night when I step outside to close the kitchen shutters, I look up and if there are no clouds I feel like a child wondering at the beauty and mystery of those stars. Like you, they are also dots on my world map of travels.

    Last year I was in Arles and stood at that quay where Van Gogh painted those stars. The scene is exactly as it was when he painted it, except that he has compressed the wonder of a 360 degree sky into a focal image that beams us right up into the mystery. What a guy. And Feynman – well, you know.

  2. David Yerle says:

    Well, you just chose one of my favorite scientists to write a post about. Have you read his auto-biography? It is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
    Regarding your question, I am not sure. Science is weird and sometimes breathtaking but is it also marvelous? While the equations may be, I’m not so sure about the world. It depends on my mood, I guess. I guess what you find poetic is a matter of choice.

    • Thank you for your comment, David! I will check out Feynman’s autobiography as soon as I start reading for fun again; it sounds great. Reading his quotes was already very interesting.
      I am not even sure about that question, myself. I am just throwing a few words together on something that feels very big. As for poetry, it depends on your definition of poetry, I guess. 🙂

      • Definitely going to get that book. I only read for fun.

        Oh, I’ll take a whack at poetry. “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” Has huge poetic potential, and I suspect it was pulled from something that was poetical. When I read it here without the original context, I immediately started giving it one of my own. Ambiguous, fuzzy concepts soon pick up a context that’s metaphorical. Velcro poetry.

        By the way, T. S. Eliot said precisely the same thing as Feynman, but in different words. I’m on a train headed to Toronto with my fairly adequate iPad so I can’t access the reference at the moment.

  3. Feynman is great.

    I always thought the beauty of science (or logic or math) was a different kind of beauty from that of the artist. Maybe it’s the beauty of the laws that govern the objects or even an appreciation for the types of conceptualizations that try to grasp these things. As such, the stereotypical scientist and stereotypical artist may both be driven by aesthetics, but of a different sort.

    I like the last line. “What I cannot create, I do not understand”. I’ve found this to be my experience too. If I really want to understand X, I find I must try to build it. Failing that, I can try to “build” the understanding that led up to X.

    • Thank you for your comment, BR.
      I don’t really know if the beauty of math is different, because I have not experienced it firsthand. I can only refer you to Genetic Fractals’ post for today on this one. He specifically mentions the beauty of equations (and he is on my blogroll).
      What you mention about “what I cannot create, I do not understand” is something that does resonate with me. I think the same goes for an argument that leads you to a certain conclusion. Following the train of thought is only the first step, if I want to understand it, I need to be able to construct it again from scratch, taking criticisms into consideration. Still, I assume you are talking more from the point of view of an engineer or programmer on this one. 🙂

      • I will have to check out Genetic Fractals’ blog!

        Although I’m talking from the perspective of a programmer, I agree with you on following an argument, that the creation in this case is the creation of the line of thought. In a sense like this, even faulty ideas can be aesthetically beautiful and can be appreciated on their own terms and not for any truth they may contain.

        • Well, I really think you might like this article. 🙂

          I like your thought on faulty ideas being aesthetically beautiful. Thanks for adding that viewpoint to the discussion.

  4. dyssebeia says:

    Feynman is absolutely right that scientific inquiry and knowledge doesn’t make anything ‘mere’, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real worry about the culture use of scientific knowledge that does have this reducing function. When the various successes of science are used to denigrate the arts, to diminish their status as serious forms of inquiry into serious problems, to make them into entertainment and nothing more, simply because the arts don’t look like science, then I think there is a serious worry that things are being made ‘mere’ whatever. When you admit as true-or-false only claims such as those about our cheater detection modules, and not claims such as “the average person, in his/her everyday endeavors, lives out an odyssey of Homeric proportions” (one lesson of Joyce’s Ulysses), then I think something very important is lost. When the endeavor that gives us the latter is treated as a mere “fun” thing we do and not as a serious investigation into what David Foster Wallace beautifully called “those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness”. On this subject, I recommend the essay “Why the Novel Matters” by D.H. Lawrence.

    As for whether scientific understanding of phenomena is more marvelous than poetic understanding of them, I would say no. Scientific understanding isn’t marvelous at all — marvelousness is not a scientific norm. Theories do not (or ought not) gain favor because they are marvelous. Marvelousness is an aesthetic evaluation. For scientific understanding to be marvelous is must already be poeticized in some form or another (which Feynman does in the quote). What Feynman really thinks is marvelous is his poeticization of scientific understanding, it’s relation to his life as “man alive” (Lawrence’s term). As for whether that is more marvelous than prior poetry, I don’t think there’s any real answer. Science makes possible new metaphors and new poetry, some of which will be marvelous and some of which will not.

    Wallace interview:
    Lawrence essay:

    • dyssebeia says:

      With the benefit of hindsight, this sounds rantier and bitterer than I had hoped.

    • Thank you for your intriguing comment, dyssebeia! There is so much to it, that I would need a few blogs to answer, at the least. But still I want to say something.

      I would not have to read: “Why the novel matters” to know that the novel matters. I’d like to turn your remark about Joyce on its head by saying the average person only lives out an odyssey of Homeric proportions in the eyes of an artist like Joyce. But maybe that is what you are arguing, too, in a sense. That might be what makes art indispensable.

      Art should not be ‘fun’ in a sense that impedes it being a serious investigation into what’s human and magical. (I had never heard of David Foster Wallace but what I’ve seen sounds interesting. Thank you for mentioning him.) Johannes Nelson recently wrote a blog where he made a comparison between what he called functional simulations and self-serving simulations. I thought he was looking at the difference between practising for life and having fun, in an interesting way. 🙂

      On science being marvelous, you’re right; ‘marvelous’ is not a scientific norm. However, in the field Feynman was in, working on the very edge of scientific enquiry, we stumble upon the poetic. Just because it’s there. I look at it in this way, precisely because we’re only human. Realising, from a scientific perspective, what we do not know, or cannot know, or cannot even guess at should lead to the exact humility and wonder that a poet feels. I think that is how Feynman felt about it.

      What makes me sad sometimes, is that there seem to be so many people who are not aware of science or art in the sense you describe them. I do detect a hint of bitterness in your comment, but I am still glad you took the time to say this.

      • dyssebeia says:

        The main interest, for me, in the Lawrence essay is not that the novel matters. As you said, you certainly don’t need an essay to establish that—or at least you shouldn’t. Maybe today you do need one… (My sense that such an essay even might be necessary is part of why I can be unhealthfully bitter about this subject.) Rather, my interest lies in Lawrence’s polemical answer to why it matters.

        What I want to say is not that the average person is an Odysseus only in Joyce’s eyes, but rather that it was only when Joyce came along that it became possible to see this. Once Joyce made his “discovery” public (here the line between discovery and invention is blurred to the point of nonexistence), it became open to everybody. And moreover it applies to all those people, past and future, who Joyce never laid eyes upon. It is only in virtue of Joyce that it is true (aesthetic truth is not anonymous in the way scientific truth is), but it is not true only for Joyce. (I hope my use of the notion of ‘aesthetic truth’ is clear enough. Obviously a great deal of philosophical work would be needed to make it fully cogent.)

        Your talk of humility reminds me most of all of Plato, and I agree that understanding of our limitations is a route to poetic humility. But I wouldn’t restrict the poetic to the edges of inquiry. There is as much poetry in the anatomy of insects as in the “anatomy” of atoms—perhaps more, since the absence of spectacle means it takes a subtler poet to extract this poetry from them. The whole world is a poetic resource, and scientific understanding makes available ocean after ocean of poetic oil. But only if scientific inquiry is not taken to conflict with a healthy attitude toward art.

        Basically, I see scientific inquiry as a prelude and handmaiden to poetic inquiry, and I despair when scientific inquiry is taken to make the arts mere “fun”. I think they’re much more a matter of life and death.

        David Foster Wallace is amazing, both his fictional novels/stories and his non-fictional essays (e.g. those in his book Consider the Lobster).

        • Thank you for your reply.
          I have no problem with you mentioning ‘aesthetic truth’ in this context. And I like you mentioning that what Joyce did applies to people past and future, I think this is an important aspect.
          What you say about science sounds interesting. I tend to sometimes think of physics as being the root of all science (not of mathematics because I cannot speak that language at all) but to see poetry in biology, as in all the rest of the world, makes sense.
          You take a firm stand when you see scientific inquiry as a prelude and handmaiden to poetic inquiry. As on the arts being a matter of life and death; I am still reading The Birth of Tragedy and I think that might be Nietzsche’s point. Tragedy being the art that saved the Greeks: “Art saves him, and through art life saves him, for itself.” (I do realise I am putting yet another element in.)
          Sorry for taking some time to answer, I thought it better to muse about this for some time. (You might come across my next post, on the Muse and the unknown.)

          • dyssebeia says:

            As someone with (undergraduate) training in biology, and now in a field (philosophy of science) that historically (though this has drastically improved since about the 70s) has been absurdly physics-centric, I can be a bit huffy about the physics-as-the-fundamental-science view. 😛

            I haven’t really connected these views with the early Nietzsche, who I’ve engaged with less than all other Nietzsches except the very late Nietzsche. But I do think I’ve been very influenced in this by Nietzsche generally.

            Thanks for your thoughtful reply (and no worries about the delay—a good comment is always better than a quick one). My thinking on this subject has been stimulated greatly by this discussion.

      • dyssebeia says:

        I forgot to say thank you for your thoughtful reply. I really appreciate being able to discuss these ideas—on the rare occasions when I do bring them up to my offline friends the conversation fizzles.

  5. Pingback: The Artist’s High and the Click | wegway

  6. Jim says:

    James Gleick’s Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman is an excellent biography.

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