Today I came across a blog post by Dan Nguyen, entitled "Feynman's Clock", that defends Richard Feynman from the stereotype of a genius scientist who is all brains and no feelings. I enjoyed the piece, but I have problems with it because it simultaneously perpetuates that very stereotype.
Nguyen talks about how Feynman reacted to the illness and death of his wife Arlene. Here's a quote from James Gleick's biography of Feynman (I assume the emphasis is Nguyen's):
Finally he heard a last small breath, and a nurse came and said that Arline was dead. He leaned over to kiss her and made a mental note of the surprising scent of her hair, surprising because it was the same as always.
The nurse recorded the time of death, 9:21 P.M. He discovered, oddly, that the clock had halted at that moment—just the sort of mystical phenomenon that appealed to unscientific people.
Then an explanation occurred to him. He knew the clock was fragile, because he had repaired it several times, and he decided that the nurse must have stopped it by picking it up to check the time in the dim light.
Seems reasonable to me. Here's Nguyen's commentary on that anecdote:
At a moment when just about anybody would shove aside rational thought – even at least as a helpless reaction to mindnumbing grief – and favor that the universe’s chaos stopped just then to offer a sign of divine significance, Feynman instead sticks to cold hard logic, even if it means sterilizing the moment of his wife’s death.
I disagree that the only natural reaction to grief is to "shove aside rational thought" and assume "divine significance" behind events that we would otherwise assume are coincidence.
I strongly disagree that Feynman "sterilized" the moment of Arlene's death, as if his use of reason devalued his emotions. Here's Feynman himself demolishing a related idea — the idea that scientific knowledge diminishes the perception of beauty:
You can see a beautiful thing and know some of the science behind it. You can grieve for your wife and figure out a non-magical explanation for why a clock stopped.
Some might find this application of scientific method off-putting. But maybe it was just an unavoidable feature of one of our most interesting and brilliant modern minds.
Bad enough that Nguyen plays into the very stereotype he later tries to counter — that being scientific is an emotionally crippling "unavoidable feature". Even worse is the blog post that Nguyen links to, entitled "A Deathbed Story I Would Never Tell", in which Robert Krulwich judges Feynman's thought processes to be so unseemly he wouldn't be caught dead admitting them himself:
What [Feynman] did was, he remembered that the clock had been fragile. He had been asked to fuss with it; he'd fixed it several times. In his memoirs (that is, in his version of this story), he says the nurse must have picked up the clock to determine the time of death, unsettled the workings inside, and the clock stopped. No miracle. Just an ordinary, accidental jostle. Here he is, describing a moment of enormous significance, and he won't allow a Signifier.
I couldn't do that. I would want to, almost need to, imagine a higher audience for a moment like that.
I have a real problem with the suggestion that it's pathological not to invent a magical Signifier, with a capital S, when a moment's thought comes up with a non-miraculous explanation that makes more sense. Meanwhile, the compulsive need to "imagine a higher audience" somehow indicates a more normal person?
Don't get me wrong. I understand the impulse to "imagine", and I can see how it's natural for some people, and a good impulse for, say, a fiction writer. I like to imagine things myself from time to time. What I don't get is assuming that that impulse maps to a higher reality.
Getting back to Nguyen — I do appreciate what he's getting at, and I recommend reading his entire post. He is absolutely right that if you think Feynman was "asocial" and "cold-hearted", you should read Surely You're Joking and What Do You Care to find out how wrong you are. Hell, you should read those books anyway because they're fascinating and funny. I just think Nguyen defeats his own purpose somewhat.