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Feynman's Clock (danwin.com)
137 points by danso on June 1, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments

Wow, what a misleading article. The "she's dead, and how's the project?" quip wasn't to show the scientific, rational way Feynman dealt with death but rather the unhealthy manner in which he'd internalized his grief. The book goes on to describe, at great length, how Feynman would spontaneously break down in tears when he saw something that reminded him of her, and how he'd continue to have conversations with her after her death (which I believe led to his disqualification from military service). I suppose that doesn't fit in well with the narrative of "Feynman is the ideal all rational thinkers should strive for!!!" this guy seems to be pushing though.

"but rather the unhealthy manner in which he'd internalized his grief."

I look at it differently. I just think he didn't want to be annoyed by a bunch of standard "sorry to hear about your loss" that many people receive when someone hears about their loss.

He said:

"I didn’t know how I was going to face all my friends at Los Alamos. I didn’t want people with long faces talking to me about the death of Arlene. "

To me "long faces" is the key. The long faces make him feel uncomfortable. Just like many people are comfortable singing in front of their parents and friends and showing emotions and others are not.

You're saying the same thing in a different way. He repressed his grief because he couldn't cope with it. It wasn't a healthy reaction.

It was an understandable and normal reaction, given his youth and the pressure he was under, but it wasn't likely good for his mental health.

actually he didn't repress his grief. he understood that grief for her doesn't change that she's dead, and other people bugging him about her death doesn't make it any better. So he decides he might as well just continue doing what he was doing, because how he deals with her death is not his colleagues concern

Have you read Genius by Gleick? His response to his wife's death was to frenziedly throw himself into work and systematically abuse women. The idea that his grief was not being repressed doesn't stand up.

Again, very understandable in an ambitious young man growing up in the shadow of war with all that responsibility on his shoulders. But not what you'd call a healthy grieving process.

i would like to know what is a healthy grieving process.

Any correlation made by glieck with his way of living is purely his own interpretation of things, and not feynman's. So, you idea that the idea of grief not being repressed doesn't stand up doesn't stand up (yes, read that sentence carefully).

You are not his mind, nor a psychic (no, not psychotherapist) to tell why he did what he did.

If you ever read his "autobiographies" you'll see he's been very well received by women around him (since his princeton years), not after arlene's death.

>and systematically abuse women


You can read the bios yourself. After Arline he went on his "debug how to sleep with women binge" and then slept with his students' wives. Most complained that none of them could live up to his dead wife, and the more ill-treated ones wrote to the others saying that the best way to get out of a Feynman relationship was to make a few dollars by claiming to have missed your period.

This is all passed over quite briefly in Genius, but you'll find more evidence elsewhere.

it's the code word for "any interaction with women i do not approve of"

What would be the point talking to people about this loss of a loved one, who merely ask you because social norm dictates it so?

What would he have gained?

He was obviously of sound mind and spirit, and did not require "grief counseling" from his analytical co-workers. So he ended that conversation.

"because social norm dictates it so"

Agree (as my comment indicates). This is an auto response that is triggered upon hearing certain news. While a person might also have an emotion many times you say it to someone you don't even know and care about. People hear something and they instinctively act a certain way. I'm not saying everybody is like this of course.

I'm the author of the OP and think you may have (understandably) missed the point. The headline is "Feynman's Clock" and how he thought through the stopped clock is the example of his always logical mind.

But considering I kind of went on at length about what he did immediately after, then I can see your interpretation. But to answer your point, I don't pass judgment or approval of Feynman, just showing how his "distant" persona does not capture the entirety of his emotion and thought.

That's fair. Yes, it seemed to me everything that came after what you wrote about the clock seemed to be there to support the overall point.

> (which I believe led to his disqualification from military service)

I read the book a while ago so I don't remember it enough to respond to the rest of your comment, but this part here I do remember.

He was disqualified from military service because he played games with them in the screening and said things like he "heard voices in his head" (because that's what thinking is). The section was all rather funny.

yes. he does say "he talks to her", but explains that he knows she's dead, and he only talks to the thought of her, rather than seeing her. that's one seriously funny section of his book.

> unhealthy manner

Evidence required.

The letter to his dead wife is deeply touching, and the last sentence made me laugh and cry.

It seems important to note that those of great acheivement still feel normal human emotions, and those who aspire to great acheivement should not try to avoid feeling normal human emotions - lest they become, well the president of Syria.

Thank you danso.

Although I liked this post, I don't know who is trying to avoid feeling normal human emotions. Is this directed at some group?

Bit late but ...

There is a meme that great scientists, all great achievers, are somewhat other, not normal, aloof unfeeling cold calculating machines. That's how they do it. The story of the stopped clock could be used to bolster that fallacy

The letter clearly, lucidly, funnily, and touchingly blows apart any concept that Feynmann was cold unfeeling or somehow other.

Just seemed important to note that great achievement is not incompatible with great passion and humanity. C.f. The president of Syria for how MIT to do it.

Probably something he's felt at some point or another.


If the software would let me, I would spend all my karma points to upvote this post.

I recently (yesterday) suffered the loss of a loved one, and reading Feynman's letter to his late wife is one of the few things giving me comfort right now.

Feynman has a unique insight and perspective of the world.

One of the lessons I learned from him, and I can't find the quote now, but when he was diagnosed with cancer he had this to say:

Everyone knows that they will one day die, yet they find a way to "live" life despite that fact. They have ambitions, dreams, desires. The only difference for me is that that the time is now limited. Why would I be depressed about that when the basic principle of life is the same. The only difference for me is that the time is shortened. It's simply a matter of scale, but the philosophical conundrum remains the same.

While reading the letter to his wife I felt a sense of guilt and stopped reading. Why is it that after a person's passing their right to privacy is no longer respected? While they are alive to read and publish such information without consent would be bad, but why is it OK after their passing? Even if they will not feel the pain of the invasion of privacy, that does not give someone else the right to expose such information. I think for the good of the group should only extend until it starting impinging on the rights of the individual.

Important people arrange to have their papers handled by a trusted person or group. They usually select what goes where, and how it gets dealt with.

While certainly a private thing that gave him happiness or solace or peace in life, I'm confident that he chose to include it in his collected record on death.

This seems consistent with everything that (I imagine) I know about him from reading his own autobiographical stuff, as well as other peoples' attempts.

(Aside: Klaus Fuchs, the guy whose car he borrowed, turned out to be the mole at Los Alamos, and that car was instrumental in the performance of Fuchs' activities.)

I don't necessarily agree or disagree with you, because it's hard to make any argument given with how you frame the question. What does it mean that the deceased Feynman has rights? In life, it would be illegal (in America) for a hospital to disclose that he once came in for a flu shot. But it is completely legal to get a coroners report which explains the cause of death and all other related medical details. It doesn't make sense to discuss "rights" because Feynman as an alive human is not the same as Feynman dead.

I know you're not talking about legal matters, but some of the issues behind libel and speech law are derived in part from moral concerns.

As a side note, it's not all together clear that it would be illegal to publish something like this were he still alive, as he would be considered a person of public interest.

Now, the issue of whether it's bad? That's strictly a taste thing. Had the author of e biography chosen to publish any and all seedy letters found in Feynman's private collection, I think we could agree that that is "bad", as in, bad taste...but I think the case could be made that the publishing of this type of personal letter is not in that same category, in terms of taste

The way we treat agreements after death affects how much trust the living place in each other.

We would have no Kafka. It would be burnt.

I hardly consider myself cold or heartless scientiffic, but I cannot imagine why someone would give up all reason and curiosity applied to the moment surroumding a persons death.

If a clock stopped at the time of my wifes death, just how would it be natural to attribute it to something supernatural if I wouldn't usually do that?

Just because it is a highly emotional moment?

Concerning young love, there's the perception that the world practically begins and ends with your partner. Given that she was assigned a tragic and uncommon fate, would it be surprising to think that Feynman, or anyone, might be more vulnerable to accepting the "magical" explanation, that the energy/soul of this unique being left a telekinetic sign?

Its not just that you wouldn't, on average, consider a supernatural explanation. It's that the stopping of a clock at any particular moment is rare and the death of your first true love...is, well, also extremely rare. A scientific mind, under some stress, might cede to the supernatural comfort by framing it as: "well, the probability of those two events happening at once"...and this framing would be made even easier given the overwhelming acceptance of such an event being supernatural by a 1940s-era society

I think you would be more rational exactly at that moment than be emotional.

People react in unexpected ways in extreme situations. The most common reaction is to revert to a default mode of operation. It takes time for the feelings and responses to work their way through you.

Good read, but there's so much more to the story.

His book "What do you care what other people think" is a homage to Arlene, partly because Feynman made the fatal mistake of trusting the doctor's judgement to disregard the blatantly obvious diagnosis. He wrote about his experience in much more detail here:

Part 1: http://i.imgur.com/CSNop.png

Part 2: http://i.imgur.com/7mDTW.png

He was depressed for a while but eventually his love for physics helped him recover. Feynman is the most logical and happiest human I have ever seen. Hans Bethe once said, "Feynman depressed is just a little more cheerful then any other person when he is exuberant."

Feynman's magnificent exuberance and puzzle solving enthusiasm remained up until his last days, where his coworker Christopher Sykes remarked "Look at this man. He faces the abyss. He doesn't know whether he is going to live through this week. But he was consumed by it, and he worked on it all day long...." http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzg1CU8t9nw#t=1h11m33s

A few days before his second operation, Feynman sang a bongos song about orange juice, an amusing take of Linus Pauling's advice to possibly cure his cancer. Just look at his smile at the end of this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKTSaezB4p8

I would also like to add that on Feynman's last days at the hospital, his last words to his artist friend Jirayr was "Don't worry about anything, go out and have a good time!" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fzg1CU8t9nw#t=1h32m15s

Anyone who thinks of Feynman as a cold-hearted scientist is incredibly mistaken.

It's interesting that the author of this article regards this as, somehow, evidence that Feynman was "scientific till the end". What I read here is an article about a man who so deeply felt love for another human being that he abandoned any rationality on the topic and loved her even long after she was dead, to the exclusion of others.

What's the science in that?

To me, this story illustrates that Feynman was a man of deeper beliefs than most religious people, and what the story illustrates, really, is that there is absolutely no contradiction between having a highly rational, scientific mindset and yet having very deep beliefs that transcend the reductionist scientific mindset that some hardcore atheist propose is "the way forward".

Science and beliefs can coexist perfectly well, as they did in Feynman, Einstein, and many other of our greatest scientists.

Where in the world did you get the idea that Feynman had beliefs that are irrational or unscientific? Because I read the article and all I could find was sincere feeling.

The phrase "hardcore atheist" suggests that you may have some baggage that is clouding your view on what words like rational and scientific mean. They never meant that you can't love somebody or grieve. That isn't even a belief, and it has nothing to do with theological views.

Well, the clock part is what I consider "scientific". If you had told me that Feynman was so struck by how the clock stopped that he kept the clock enclosed in a crystal box and tattooed "9:21" onto his arm, I might believe you because it's natural to assign meaning to a number and object that would otherwise be unremarkable.

In fact, people might do this anyway just to commemorate a moment of death. But when something very unexpected occurs at such a pivotal moment, it is practically irresistable to think it more than coincidence.

What would Feynman Lose by just accepting that, in this moment, there appear to be more things between heaven and earth than what science could reveal, especially in matters of love lost? Instead, he took time out of his grief to dispel such a notion.

And yet, he loved his wife and her memory as the deepest romantic. The "love" part can exist independently of logical, scientific method...or at leat it did in Feynman's case.

>Science and beliefs can coexist perfectly well

I have no idea what kind of messed up definition of "beliefs" you are using. Of course science and beliefs coexist; science is a process for arriving at accurate beliefs.

Why should it be irrational to love somebody after their death? You can still listen inside of you and discover more things about that person - what you missed, what you would wish to do with them now, whatever. I don't think that requires some mystical belief that the dead person's spirit is somehow still around (other than in your own neurons).

Humans are no "classical computers", we have emotions and desires built in (for a purpose, but still). It is not necessarily rational trying to suppress those and aiming to become as much as a calculator as possible. You could as well just go for the ride and see where it takes you.

It is not irrational to love someone after their death, but it is fairly irrational to refuse to love anyone else after your wife dies and it is very irrational to write sealed letters to a dead person.

It shows that Feynman was quite willing and able to surrender to irrational behaviour when he wanted to. The difference between Feynman and the superstitious man was not a rejection of things irrational, but a conscious control over when to give in to the irrationality and when to remain scientific.

Of course, you might say that this is only sensible - but many people who take a reductionist view ("there is nothing beyond the material") explicitly reject this balance.

>it is very irrational to write sealed letters to a dead person.

It seems irrational when you presume that the only purpose of a letter is to be read by the recipient. But writing a letter can help clarify your own thoughts and feelings, which is a perfectly rational thing to want to do.

You can explain anything if you try hard enough, even the bible...

Have you really never written something down just to clarify your thoughts? It's legitimately useful. Usually I don't do it by writing a letter to someone, but I could definitely see doing that in Feynman's situation.

I think he was a pretty well-rounded human being, as opposed to a one-sided geek. We just remember him for his brilliant mind.

> His dogged investigation of the Challenger explosion is the most generally well-known demonstration of his mindset.

IIRC: In his second book ("What do you care what other people think"), he essentially admits he was a tool in this instance.

One of the generals had figured it out, but was politically unable to point the finger. He lead Feynman to the issue, who then ran with it.

(I can't remember his name. He opens with "Copilot to pilot: Comb your hair" or some such.)

This is true. This is why I say "generally well-known", as in, as the public sees it. But I would also argue that in spirit, Feynman showed a high level of determination and focus to get to the bottom of things. As it happened, the famous revelation was given to him.

A really beautiful article. It made me decide to put "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" first in my next-to-read list.

I love peeking deeper into the hearts and minds of superhuman people and discovering just how human they really are.

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