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Richard Feynman on our difficult times: “Whatever else is going on, we’ve always got our physics.”

Wednesday, November 9, 2016 12:05
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At this unfortunate moment, one of the best things I can think of is an anecdote about Richard Feynman from Stephen Wolfram’s new book “Idea Makers“. Wolfram was a graduate student with Feynman, and he recounts an episode from one of his visits to Feynman’s place.

“If there’s one moment that summarizes Richard Feynman and my relationship with him, perhaps it’s this. It was probably 1982. I’d been at Feynman’s house, and our conversation had turned to some kind of unpleasant situation that was going on. I was about to leave. And Feynman stopped me and said, “You know, you and I are very lucky. Because whatever else is going on, we’ve always got our physics.”

To which I may add, we also have friends, family and our hobbies. Whichever direction the maelstrom of political winds blows our ship, we may take solace in these relative constants of our life. 

It does not mean that we lose ourselves in them to the extent of completely withdrawing from the larger national dialogue – the next few years more than any others demand our participation in that dialogue – but it’s very reassuring to know that a carbon-carbon bond, or a supernova, or a protein molecule, or a semiconductor, or an equation, simply don’t care who the president of the United States is. Moreover, as Einstein once said, time itself is no more than a “stubbornly persistent illusion”, and if time might be illusory, then politics is a vanishingly transient ghost in the grand scheme of things.

I find cool succor in this pristine, untouched domain of science and ideas, and I hope most of us will in the difficult days ahead.


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