Richard Feynman and “Her” – a love letter –

16 Sep

This is a guest post by Sarah Kornfeld.

This weekend, I’ve been obsessed with the letters of Richard Feynman. It’s been a lovely, slow and quiet time between me and a man, a woman he loved — and an atomic bomb he helped to build.

Richard Feynman was a remarkable person — he was a physicist, musician, troublemaker, lover and, as we know, one of the members of the Manhattan Project. It’s a stretch, but his life could be a metaphor for any life: he made choices that create and destroy. It’s not that we all can say we invented the bomb, but sometimes our best efforts don’t lead us in the best directions – and we hurt people, and ourselves.  His book, “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: Letters of Richard Feynman” is great fun, and a must read.

Man, could the guy write a letter; very terse ones in some cases — yet wildly reasonable. And, when he was young and writing his mother (and later in his life even still) you could see his respect for her. Yet, perhaps I should be most impressed with the ENTIRE chapter of congratulatory letters for his Noble Peace Prize (his notes back of thanks are self-effacing works of art.!)

Though, I find the  letters to his first wife Arline to be the most defining — they show the basis of his approach to life — straightforward, hopeful and revolved around his own reality.

All of these letters, of course, are dated on the top right, with the formal name and address. The letters are always signed, even between family members. That is the great pleasure of reading a book of letters — as opposed to a book of emails — you have the experience of time as it moves between the date a letter was sent, to the date that there was a response. People would return a letter over a period of months. But, lovers would write every day, and respond to each one — in as rapid a fashion as they could. They would never hold on to a letter to send to a person they loved for two years — but, Feynman did. More on that later.

There is one letter that shot me through and through (again, more than the letters of fame and academic/intellectual arm wrestling he spun out, page after page) about Arline’s death.

So, let me cut to the chase about a woman who died the same day her husband tested the first nuclear bomb: Feynman had TB.

In the 1940′s she and Richard married although they knew of her illness. He was living on the base in the desert working for Oppenheimer. She lived in a sanitarium in New Mexico. He shuttled back and forth between building a bomb and loving her.  She died, as I expressed, the day the bomb was tested. It feels almost like a “life for a life” mythic threat, yet Feynman never alluded to believing this.

Later he carried a letter  for two years after her death. It’s said it was worn down, folded and re-folded. So, this means the letter was written, but never mailed.  He must have had it on his body for two years. Can you imagine carrying an email you send to yourself: that email you want to say everything in to her/him? That doesn’t have the same ring or feeling to it, does it?


To Arline Feynman, October 17, 1946


I adore you, sweetheart … It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing. But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and what I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector.

Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures. When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried.

Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want to stand there.

I’ll bet that you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls … and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead,


PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.

This is a gorgeous and tense letter by a person who is hard—wired for logic, yet knows that his connection to something ephemeral (her memory, her being) is real to him. A scientist taking a logical approach to grief, and a person allowing himself to feel the entire ebb and flow love — in the presence of death.

So, why was it that at 11:30pm last night as I read about his pain did I feel such sadness for Arline? All I could think was:

Who was she?

How alone was she?

What did it feel like to be in a bed, reading, waiting to be seen, her man making something “important”: her body making the way for more illness?

If she had been alive today she would have blogged about it, right? Or, perhaps she would have Skyped with him? Or, perhaps she would have used a microphone and dictated her experience? Right? Wouldn’t she have done that? Would she be more real to us?

All this technology would have “connected” them more, yes? And, would she have had more ways to ask him about what he was building out there in the desert? And, would she have had more time to connect with others who loved her via email? Or, does any of that matter?

We can’t beat back death with a T1 line, can we? And, we can’t change that we don’t know the address of the dead?

Who was Arline?

In the end she was a person we now know from letters — one in particular that is folded up and torn. And, I found the letter posted here after I Googled it…so I guess she has a place, not a carbon footprint per say, but a memory footprint because she lives in a search engine.

What about us? Will all of this emailing, and face to face contact through video, and life in 2nd life will this make us feel more? (I am not arguing here that it’s not relevant – all this technology — I am not a technology prude – but I am haunted by a piece of paper….so…) would we have the guts to carry around a letter like that – a letter that you can’t send, but you keep in your pocket to remind yourself you are broken? Back then he didn’t have the option for immediacy. Do we give ourselves the option to bind ourselves to paper?

Ok, but, let’s not get to sentimental for the printing press! If she were of this time, would Arline have left us a bit more in writing beyond lovely notes where she begs him to visit, begs to be connected: is isolated in her gender and her illness? Would we have a record (emails, word documents, texts, video, anything??) of the woman who lived with the man who helped to invent the most dangerous weapon known to man – and loved him still?

I still love his letter, yet, I would have loved to have known more about her: from her. She had that room to her own — what would she have done with a portal?

Sarah Kornfeld hosts the blog What Sarah Sees, a passionate view of hybrid communications: new approaches to using art, technology and social sharing to give some love back to the planet. Sarah is a writer, communications executive, and activist.

11 Responses to “Richard Feynman and “Her” – a love letter –”

  1. sarah kornfeld September 16, 2011 at 11:31 am #

    How great to be a guest in your important dialog about culture and science. Love and art, life and death are all integral to our quest for meaning. Science is that quest, and Richard and Arline certainly looked together (for as long as they could!) for a great, and searching life! Thank you.

  2. Seb Spain September 16, 2011 at 11:59 am #

    The section of Feynman’s “What do you care what other people think?” about his relationship with Arline and her death is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read. A brilliant scientist and truly devoted husband.

  3. Linda September 17, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    I have a slightly different take….
    Could it be that he wrote and carried around this letter for so long because he harbored a large amount of guilt?
    A man so busy with much importance seemed to leave little room for his wife while she was still alive.

  4. Aatish September 19, 2011 at 2:32 am #

    There’s a typo above.. Feynman never won the Peace prize.

    This is really a great book. I remember a wonderful letter he wrote to a science teacher who wrote him for help in dealing with a pesky science student who asked hard questions about magnetism.

  5. sarah kornfeld September 19, 2011 at 10:56 am #

    Linda…what an interesting take … that could well have been, it’s such a haunting letter … I love how that ambiguity is there.

    Astish, this is a great book isn’t it – and amazing how he tried to write everyone back. Actually, he did win the coveted Nobel and gave a gracious speech — I try to imagine him in his tux and that great NY accent. Hope that clears it up — unless I have a typo I do apologize.

    Thanks for comments and feedback!

    • jfruh September 19, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

      He did win a Nobel prize, but it was the Physics prize, not the Peace prize.

      Thanks for reproducing this letter — it’s haunting and lovely.

  6. sarah kornfeld September 21, 2011 at 8:12 pm #

    You are EVER so right … but it feels like peace ;)
    Thank you for your insight and feedback.

    • Jon B September 28, 2011 at 5:45 am #

      I might have missed something, but I _think_ you got mixed up there. You said he carried the letter for two years after her death, but he says in the letter that it took him to years to finally decide to write it. (Well, more accurately,
      “almost” two years since the last time he wrote; the first paragraph makes it sound like it was indeed the first letter he wrote to her after her death.)

      Unless you’re talking about another letter he carried? Just wondering, since I don’t have the book.

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