Lessons on resilience from a Nobel physicist

Thursday would have been physicist Richard Feynman’s 99th birthday, marking the start of his centenary year. The international physics community is gearing up for a celebration of the life and work of one of the greatest 20th-century scientists.

There is much to honor. Feynman’s Nobel Prize-winning techniques revolutionized the field of particle physics. His simple diagrams showing how particles interact have become ubiquitous. In science education, his humorous, crystal-clear lectures on various scientific topics, preserved on video, serve as models for how to enlighten and inform students. Many of these are available online, and continue to inspire young people. Many key contemporary technological advances, such as nanotechnology and quantum computers, owe a debt to prescient comments he made in the early decades of computing.

While Feynman’s brains and wit are certainly inspiring, we might all learn from another quality he possessed in abundance: resilience. He remained active and optimistic during times in his life when others would have plunged into inertia and despair. Even when he was down, he kept an eye out for anything that might take his mind off his woes and revive his spirits.

For example, immediately after receiving his Ph.D. for groundbreaking work at Princeton under the supervision of noted physicist John Wheeler, Feynman married Arline Greenbaum, a young woman with tuberculosis. They had been sweethearts for many years before she became afflicted with the then-incurable illness nicknamed the “white plague.” Feynman’s parents, especially his mother, urged him not to take on the burden of a wife with a serious, contagious disease. While realistic about her prognosis, on the contrary he saw their marriage as a joy, not a hardship. Even though their years together might be limited, he reasoned, their potential to enrich each other’s lives through the sharing of confidences, fun times, and ideas seemed boundless.

Arline and Richard enjoyed just three years of marriage before she died. Shortly thereafter, his father, with whom he was very close, passed on. In between, he participated, as part of the Manhattan Project, in the design of the first atomic bombs, which were launched on Japan. For a time, he remained outwardly chipper, but then it hit him. Not only were two of his loved ones gone forever; the world itself might end in nuclear destruction.

In the late 1940s, following the war, Feynman was a starting professor at Cornell, where his post-traumatic stress distracted him from his research and thus threatened to stymie his career. Yet, rather than engage in self-pity, he looked for ways to distract himself until inspiration knocked on his door once again. The turning point was observing a plate being thrown in the university cafeteria, watching it spin, and calculating its motion. That led him to step back into the waters of particle physics and complete his Nobel Prize-winning contributions.

By 1978, when Feynman had reached the age of 60, he was generally happy. He had moved to Southern California, where he worked at the California Institute of Technology, and was practically worshiped by its adoring students who loved his teaching style and quirks. He was married to a lovely English woman, had two kids, and lived in a comfortable house within a short drive to mountains and beaches.

Soon after his birthday, however, he was diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer, conceivably a result of radiation exposure when he observed bomb testing years earlier. When he researched his condition, he realized that he might have only a few years left to live. Indeed, he would live for only nine more years, enduring several major operations to remove the growing tumors. In one of the procedures, he almost bled to death, and was rescued by a monumental campus blood drive.

Feynman’s debilitating cancer put his optimism and resilience to a severe test. Yet, rather than shut down and cut himself off from the world, he embraced life even more. He performed in numerous campus musicals acting and playing bongo drums. Even after his near-fatal surgery he got a standing ovation by appearing as a chief in a university production of South Pacific. He took on a famous role as part of the investigation of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, and won kudos for his independent research into its cause. All the while, he and a friend planned a trip to a remote part of the Soviet Union called Tuva that happened to interest him because he had seen its postage stamps years earlier. In short, rather than give up, he made the best of his remaining time.

As we approach Feynman’s centenary, let’s celebrate his courage to carry on, despite dire news, and to look forward, rather than ruminating about what could have been. He knew that despite our brief time on this planet, we have ample opportunities to explore its wonders. Surely, as he would argue, the marvels of the universe tower above our personal woes.

Paul Halpern is a University of the Sciences physics professor and the author of The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Realityp.halper@usciences.edu