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Feynman's Letter to his Deceased Wife

February 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm

For years I've been holding on to a copy of Genius, James Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman.  I'm not a huge fan of biographies in general, but I'm fascinated by Feynman, so the book has been consigned to bookshelf limbo for years.

But now I absolutely must move it atop the To Be Read stack.  Why?

A friend forwarded this entry at Letters of Note.  It speaks for itself.  Wow.

The sense of heartbreak and loss here is so vivid, so true, that it takes my breath away. 

"...I don't want to remain alone... but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes."


Feynman was known as something of a womanizer (as indicated by anecdotes in his famous autobiographic Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and perhaps also in What Do You Care What Other People Think?).  Or, if not strictly a womanizer, he surely enjoyed the company of ladies.  I've sometimes wondered if the death of his first wife didn't change him in some deep way.  Idle speculation, and pointless.  But it's poignant and arresting to read his sense of loss rendered so viscerally and eloquently.

What a touching reminder that even behind the most famous personalities there lies a beating heart.



Steve Halter February 22, 2012 at 4:22 pm
I've also always been fascinated by Feynman. In many ways he is a more accessible genius than people like Einstein. This letter is very touching indeed. I have been reading the graphic novel Feynman and just happened to have gotten through the part where the doctors are arriving at a diagnosis. Feynman wanted to be truthful with his wife about her illness but his and her family wanted to protect her and forced him to conceal its nature from her. She got him to admit this and he said he felt terrible about concealing it but she understood the pressure the rest of the family must have put upon him. He resolved not to knuckle under ever again. From what I can tell, he never did.
Ian February 22, 2012 at 9:44 pm
A friend [*waves at Brit*] sent me that Feynman graphic novel. Wonderful stuff, and a great way to tell the story of such an interesting life. I think you're right. He never seemed to knuckle under after that.
DMS February 23, 2012 at 7:56 am
I've been coveting that graphic novel. I keep almost buying it.
Ian February 23, 2012 at 9:21 am
My advice is to find a friend who will spontaneously and generously decide to send you her copy after finishing it.
Sara G. March 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm
For the Darwin project I've been reading through the letters Charles and Emma Darwin wrote to each other and it has been, exactly as you say, a touching reminder of the beating heart(s) of great thinkers. It's funny how when it comes to historic figures and Great People, they get boiled down to their Contribution to Science (or Art or History or Whatever) while in the here and now I think we focus on the personal lives of Important People in an obsessive and unhelpful way.
Ian March 9, 2012 at 12:27 pm
Sara! I thought about you and the Darwin project while posting this -- it's a wonderful example of just this kind of thing. Perhaps the very best example. I still cannot wait for the day when the Darwin project has its public unveiling and has a long summer in the sun. And by summer I mean decades.
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