Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who won the Nobel in physics in 1965 for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics. I had read about him from time to time, but he didn’t really register until I was reading a book about Wolfgang Pauli and his obsession with the number 137.
The number puzzled most physicists. But it was Feynman, though, who said that physicists should put a sign in their offices to remind themselves of how much they don’t know. The sign would be simple: 137.
So the other day when I was at Barnes & Noble, I found a book called Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science. I realized I didn’t know much about Feynman except for this 137 detail, so I bought the book.
The book is fascinating – not only for insights into Feynman the scientist, but insights into Feynman the man. The love of his life was Arline Greenbaum, whom he met at a party when he was 15 and she was just 13. She was his opposite in every way – right brain to his left brain, endowed with artistic and musical talents.
“Richard and Arline were soul mates,” writes Lawrence M. Krauss, the author of the book. “They were not clones of each other, but symbiotic opposites – each completed the other. Arline admired Richard’s obvious scientific brilliance, and Richard clearly adored the fact that she loved and understood things he could barely appreciate at that time. But what they shared, most important of all, was a love of life and a spirit of adventure.”
Feynman proposed to her when he was a junior at MIT. During the five years between his proposal and her death from tuberculosis, they corresponded constantly. “…her spirit provided him with the vital encouragement he needed to keep going, to find new roads, to break traditions, scientific and otherwise,” writes Krauss.
Their parents were concerned about their relationship. His mother was afraid that Arline’s physical condition – the TB – would be a drain on his ability to work and on his finances. But as Feynman wrote his parents, “I want to marry Arline because I love her – which means I want to take care of her. That is all there is to it…”
And so they were married. But on June 16, 1945, six weeks before the atomic bomb Feynman helped to build was exploded over Hiroshima, Arline passed away. “After she breathed her last breath in the hospital room, he kissed her, and the nurse recorded the time of death as 9:21 PM.”
He later discovered that the clock by her bedside had stopped exactly at 9:21.
Unfortunately, Feynman didn’t recognize the synchro. “A less rational mind might have found this cause for spiritual wonder or enlightenment – the kind of phenomena that makes people believe in a higher cosmic intelligence. But Feynman knew the clock was fragile. He had fixed it several times and he reasoned that the nurse must have picked it up and disturbed it to check on Arline’s time of death.”
I found this part of Feynman’s story deeply sad. He had just lost the love of his life, the clock on the bedside had stopped precisely at the time she had died, and he didn’t recognize it as significant. Yet, this phenomenon has been experienced by numerous people, under the same circumstances, and certainly qualifies as a synchronicity.
I think it illustrates how all too often we humans dismiss the obvious because to acknowledge it would force us, at the very least, to question how the world works and, at the outer extreme, might shatter our current worldviews.