What Do You Care What Other People Think?
Richard P. Feynman
Assorted stories from the life of physicist Richard Feynman, as told in interviews and in other writings.
[Upon being told by a Rabbi that a story had been made up] I tried to explain. “I’ve been listening to all these stories, and now I don’t know, of all the things you told me, which were true, and which were not true! I don’t know what to do with everything that I’ve learned!” I was trying to explain that I was losing everything at the moment, because I was no longer sure of the data, so to speak. Here I had been struggling to understand all these miracles, and now — well, it solved a lot of miracles, all right!
“It’s hard to explain. If a Martian (who, we’ll imagine, never dies except by accident) came to Earth and saw this peculiar race of creatures — these humans who live about seventy or eighty years, knowing that death is going to come — it would look to him like a terrible problem of psychology to live under those circumstances, knowing that life is only temporary. Well, we humans somehow figure out how to live despite this problem: we laugh, we joke, we live. The only difference for me and Arlene was, instead of fifty years, it was five years. It was only a quantitative difference — the psychological problem was just the same. The only way it would have become any different is if we had said to ourselves, “But those other people have it better, because they might live fifty years.” But that’s crazy. Why make yourself miserable saying things like, “Why do we have such bad luck? What has God done to us? What have we done to deserve this?” — all of which, if you understand reality and take it completely into your heart, are irrelevant and unsolvable. They are just things that nobody can know. Your situation is just an accident of life.”
“The nurse on her rounds came in and confirmed that Arlene was dead, and went out — I wanted to be alone for a moment. I sat there for a while, and then went over to kiss her one last time. I was very surprised to discover that her hair smelled exactly the same. Of course, after I stopped and thought about it, there was no reason why hair should smell different in such a short time. But to me it was a kind of a shock, because in my mind, something enormous had just happened — and yet nothing had happened.”
“The guys at the graduate college were used to me looking like an idiot. On another occasion, for example, a guy came into my room — I had forgotten to lock the door during the “experiment” — and found me in a chair wearing my heavy sheepskin coat, leaning out of the wide-open window in the dead of winter, holding a pot in one hand and stirring with the other. “Don’t bother me! Don’t bother me!” I said. I was stirring Jell-O and watching it closely: I had gotten curious as to whether Jell-O would coagulate in the cold if you kept it moving all the time.”
“By the way: everything [all the reports from the Challenger Presidential Commission] had 23 versions. It has been noted that computers, which are supposed to increase the speed at which we do things, have not increased the speed at which we write reports: we used to make only three versions — because they’re so hard to type — and now we make 23 versions!”
“After the war I was very worried about the bomb. I didn’t know what the future was going to look like, and I certainly wasn’t anywhere near sure that we would last until now. Therefore one question was — is there some evil involved in science? Put another way — what is the value of the science I had dedicated myself to — the thing I loved — when I saw what terrible things it could do? It was a question I had to answer.”
“The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, comes again and again when we look at any question deeply enough. With more knowledge comes a deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to penetrate deeper still. Never concerned that the answer may prove disappointing, with pleasure and confidence we turn over each new stone to find unimagined strangeness leading on to more wonderful questions and mysteries — certainly a grand adventure!”
“We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on. It is our responsibility to leave the people of the future a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant as we are. If we suppress all discussion, all criticism, proclaiming “This is the answer, my friends; man is saved!” we will doom humanity for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.”