Monday, 27 August 2012

Scientists are People, Too

A beautifully written post by Scott on one of Science's unsung heroes, who should be sung about, for his curiosity and character alone:

Richard Feynman.
As a first post, this might be fairly lackluster, but I feel it's important to credit the man who sparked my interest in science.  I wasn't attracted by his achievements, so much as I was his experiences -- if you need example, I suggest you read "Tuva or Bust," by Ralph Leighton.
I first experienced him in 1993, when I read one of his books as a high school sophomore.  It was called "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman".  Everyone who has even a passing interest in science of any kind knows his name.  He was even credited in a recent episode of "Eureka," where they celebrated "Feyman Day" -- a day where pranks were pulled with reckless abandon.
Feyman worked on both the Manhattan, and the Trinity projects, but what I remember most, is his inclusion on the inquiry board that investigated the Challenger Disaster.  After millions of dollars spent, on investigating it turned out to be something as simple as an incorrectly calibrated digital thermometer, and bad O-Rings.
That being said:  The most interesting thing about Feynman, had nothing to do with his accomplishments as a physicist (The Nobel in '65, and the National Medal of Science in '79) but instead his personal life.  His first wife, Arline was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, while he was working on the Trinity Project.  He would drive to visit her frequently, expressing his love for her in his own special way:  Conducting experiments.  He would have Arline handle a bottle of coke from a six-pack while he was out of the room.  Then, blindfolded, using only his sense of smell, he would attempt to discover which bottle she had picked up.
Arline died in 1945.  On October 17, 1946, Feynman wrote a letter to his deceased wife.  If you would like, you can read the entire text here
His final words in this letter were:
"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"
Even in tragedy, he never lost his sense of humor.  That letter remained sealed, until he died from cancer in 1988.
I have always lived my life by one simple rule:  Question everything.  When I was 17, I had no clue what that really meant.  Then I discovered Feynman. This was a "curious character", who questioned everything around him.  His second wife even cited this as a reason in her divorce filing.
It occurs to me that I have left out so many of his experiences.  How he used to fix his neighbors radios as a child.  He was an avid bongo player.  He was a notorious prankster.  Yet he still found a way, 5 years after his death, to inspire a teenage boy living in rural Arkansas.
Further Reading:
"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character, by Richard P. Feynman  ISBN 0-393-31604-1
"What Do You Care What Other People Think?": Further Adventures of a Curious Character, by Richard P. Feynman  ISBN 0-393-02659-0
Tuva or Bust! , by Ralph Leighton ISBN 0-140-15614-3

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