Saturday, February 18, 2012

What do you care what other people think? ...

Richard Feynman’s stature among American scientists is unsurpassed. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. As a member of the 1986 Rogers Commission, which investigated the tragic loss of the space shuttle Challenger earlier that year, he provided key insights leading to a determination that the failure of small rubber gaskets – O-rings – caused the disaster.  And in 1999, 11 years after his death, he was named one of the 10 greatest physicists of all time in a poll, conducted by a British science magazine, of 130 top physicists throughout the world.

Even as a very young scientist in the 1940s, his brilliance took him to the Manhattan Project, which was the secret effort at Los Alamos in New Mexico to develop an American atomic bomb before Germany or Japan as World War II waged on. But no matter how much his intellectual genius was esteemed and treasured by his colleagues, his first wife – Arlene – kept his feet on the ground.

Arlene’s personality seems to have been a good match for Feynman’s, with a similar strength, confidence, and bit of irreverence. Stricken with tuberculosis, she was confined to an Albuquerque hospital. Feynman drove the 100 miles from Los Alamos to visit her every weekend. He tells of those visits in his 1988 semi-autographical book What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. Arlene’s spirit comes through royally:

“There’s a little charcoal broiler in her room – she’s bought it in the mail from Sears. It’s about 18 inches across, with little legs. ‘I thought we could have steaks,’ Arlene says.

‘How the hell can we use it in the room, here, with all the smoke and everything?’[ Feynman asked]

‘Oh, no,’ she says. ‘All you have to do is take it out on the lawn. Then you can cook us steaks every Sunday.’

The hospital was right on Route 66, the main road across the United States!  ‘I can’t do that,’ I said. ‘I mean, with all the cars and trucks going by, all the people on the sidewalk walking back and forth, I can’t just go out there and start cooking steaks on the lawn!’

‘What do you care what other people think?’ (Arlene tortured me with that!) ‘Okay,’ she says, opening a drawer, ‘we’ll compromise: you don’t have to wear the chef’s hat and the gloves.’

So every Saturday or Sunday, I’d go out there on Route 66 and cook steaks.”

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