Darkness vs. Light (A response to Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gelick)

Time magazine last December, extravagantly praised the new biography of the world’s most prominent scientist who produced its reigning theory of quantum electrodynamics. Plunging into 438 pages of text gave some grounds for the Library Journal to characterize it as: “One of the most touching, affecting and important works of scientific biography in the last 30 years.” The masterfully researched and told story seems even more illuminating in different ways than its author or subject realized.


Driven by the pressures of the continuing World War II, the U.S. built a vast industry including whole new cities and massive plants in an unprecedented scientific gamble to produce a weapon that no one could be sure would work. Finally, in a desert in eastern New Mexico, the tensely watched experiment produced the spectacular explosion that brought the long war to a speedy end. The elated scientists, who had been in the center of the drama and were hailed as its heroes, now were frightened by the new, unpredictable, baffling world of nuclear weapons. In that nuclear research, none soon became more conspicuous than Richard Feynman. Too hastily labeled by Freeman Dyson on a first encounter, “half genius and half buffoon,” and eventually acknowledged by Oppenheimer, head of the project, as its “most brilliant young physicist,” Feynman’s story sheds a fascinating light on these and subsequent revolutionary developments. Getting reliable information about them has been unusually complicated by the facts that (1) those who know what they are talking about are restrained from revealing much that is still “classified” material, while (2) news people, seeking sensational copy, readily spread extreme, irresponsible, scary claims of others often driven less by substantial scientific developments than by their own erratic social and political agendas. Our daughter’s and son-in-law’s long and deep involvement in the research and lives of the nuclear physicists have given Albuquerque and Los Alamos a special interest to us. Some inquiries for dependable information first pointed to Freeman Dyson and then to Feynman as especially promising sources. In the March, 1985 Outlook I reviewed two of Dyson’s books in an article entitled, “In Search of Facts about Defense.” Now, 9 years later, the Feynman biography proved equally revealing.


Richard was born in 1918 in Far Rockaway, “frame houses and brick apartment blocks on a spit of beach floating off Long Island’s south shore,” at the outer edge of the Queens borough of New York City. The Jewish family, like the neighbors, had to struggle for a living. His Russia-born father, an avowed atheist, like most of the rather liberal Jewish neighbors, prized learning though lacking much formal education. Richard early showed an insatiable curiosity about especially the physical universe. An Encyclopedia Britannica which he “devoured,” sharpened that interest. Early boyish experiments with chemicals, a crystal radio set and vacuum tubes intrigued him and led him into repairing radios; later he was repairing computers. (His curiosity also drove him to learn bow to pick locks.) With high grades in math and science but less interest in other areas of study, he got into Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a top institution with a rather similar emphasis. There his work led him into the developing and baffling research on the nature of matter. This pursuit next moved him into the very different “quaint ceremonious village” of Princeton (New Jersey) as teaching assistant to Professor Wheeler, a leader in the expanding field of particle physics. A deepening friendship with popular Arline Greenbaum, a family acquaintance from earlier years, was troubled by anxieties about her mystifying intermittent illness. That turned out to be TB, for which an effective antibiotic treatment had not yet been developed. The country was moving rapidly toward involvement in the war. That spurred an urgent movement among top physicists to investigate the possibilities of developing a new bomb using uranium. As soon as Richard obtained his Ph. D. degree, he and Arline married (against the determined opposition of especially his mother), although Arline was spending much of her time in hospitals. Princeton’s scientific equipment and its scientists, caught up in the war’s upheavals, were presently moving to a distant mountain in northern New Mexico. There, makeshift housing and laboratory buildings were being hastily thrown up in raw wilderness on a remote 7,000 foot high mesa on the rim of an old volcano. That became the best physics center in the world—Los Alamos, a well-kept secret. The Feynmans moved by train—Richard to the mountain lab, Arline to a sanitarium 100 miles south at Albuquerque. Brash, impetuous Feynman found himself working under Cornell’s famous nuclear physicist, Hans Bethe, sometimes interrupting the startled German professor with, “You’re crazy” and “That’s nuts.” Yet, Bethe was seeking such a critic “who would find flaws before an idea went too far.” Colleagues began to say, “If Feyrnman says it three times, it’s right” (pp. 165–9). Bethe, contrary to usual practice, made the upstart a group leader. The quick, unconventional and brilliant Feynman found himself getting on more and more committees. He (in his first airplane ride) was sent to the massive Oak Ridge, Tennessee plant to make a safety check. There, in the inspections, he was shocked to see piles of processed uranium collecting with little thought of any danger. He had to warn of the threatening spontaneous explosion that would destroy the whole enterprise. Thus “responsibility caught up with him. He had to grow up fast” (p. 200).

Despite the intensifying pressures of the job, Feynman’s weekend trips to Albuquerque made him an exception to most of the isolated lab society. (His and his wife’s additional letters used code to tease and vex the military censors.) In the intermittent character of Arline’s illness, the young couple had cheered themselves with hopes and dreams of her improvement and of a brighter future. By the third springtime at Los Alamos, stresses on the job were tightening and Arline was wasting away down to a mere 84 pounds. On June 16, 1945, Richard was called to Albuquerque from the job, to find his wife dying. After a hasty cremation, he immediately returned to work, but was ordered home for a rest. Exactly one month later (July 16) he returned to New Mexico just in time to witness the crucial test of the years of massive efforts, the world’s first nuclear explosion (p. 154).



For the jubilant and relieved scientists, elation at their success gave way to somber reflections. Their apparently successful “theory gave wrong results. And not merely wrong—they were senseless…The Europeans who had invented quantum physics had tried everything they could imagine to shore up the theory, without success. How were these men to know anything?” (PA). In this new and baffling field Feynman was called a “genius,” taking “center stage…for forty years, dominating the science of the post-war era—forty years that turned the study of matter and energy down an unexpectedly dark and spectral road” (p. 8). Oppenheimer already in November of 1945 told the Los Alamos physicists that concepts with which the people were working “correspond only faintly to things in the real world, like the shadows of ghosts…and we know that our models fail to meet the reality” (p. 210). In trying to get some sense of their problem, at the risk of oversimplifying, we note that the elementary question about what light is continues to baffle physicists. The two theories, (1) that it consists of moving “particles” and (2) that it consists of “waves” in an unknown something else, both seem to explain parts of the evidence, yet they appear contradictory and, in dealing with ever smaller “particles” of matter, the behavior of these become unpredictable! The reporter on a high level conference summed it up: “Quantum mechanics is the never-never land of science, a world in which matter and energy become confused and where all the verities of day-to-day life become meaningless…” (p. 233).


Feynman was reared in a liberal Jewish family with traditions of order and hard work. “For children, life in such neighborhoods brought a rare childhood combination of freedom and moral rigor. It seemed to Feynman that morality was made easy. He was allowed to surrender to a natural inclination to be honest. It was the downhill course” (pp. 23,24). He, like his father, an atheist, “believed…in an independence of moral belief from any particular theory of the machinery of ‘the universe…that it was not certainty but freedom from certainty that empowered people to make judgments about right and wrong…” (p. 373). Notice, however, what became of the autonomous “morality” (in which only the individual made his own laws). After the heartbreaking shock of losing his young and idolized wife, “he dated undergraduates, paid prostitutes in whorehouses…beat bar girls at their own game, and slept with the young wives of several of his friends among the physics graduate students,” arguing “that he was using women as they sought to use him. Love seemed mostly a myth” a species of self-delusion, or rationalization…What he had felt with Arline he seemed to have placed on a shelf out of the way” (p. 287)! Later a marriage of two determined and too often clashing personalities ended after 4 years in divorce. Finally, he hired a younger English girl whom he met in Europe to come and work as his housekeeper, and in 1960 he married her. They had a son and adopted a daughter, establishing a stable family. He took a keen interest in the education of the children.


When the Challenger shuttle exploded January 28, 1986, Feynman was asked to serve on the committee to investigate the disaster. Although now suffering from a second rare form of cancer, he went to extraordinary lengths to consult with scientists, engineers and suppliers to ferret out what had really happened. The chairman and almost the whole of the committee were determined to shield the massive enterprise, with its many supporters and interested employees and contractors, from criticism. Despite the annoyance of the chairman, Feynman pressed his questions. Asking for a glass of ice water, he showed the panel how the rubber of the 37-foot-long seals became brittle and useless at the 32-degree temperature of that morning launch (pp. 414–428). Despite his spectacular, televised expose of criminal carelessness, the committee’s report shielded the agency and relegated Feynman’s findings to an appendix! The wasteful, overblown, deeply flawed, scientifically unproductive, but firmly entrenched and politically supported project continued on its wasteful way, and Feynman returned home to die.


That death carne on February 15, 1988. The last page of the story quotes him: “…I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here…I don’t have to know the answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. It doesn’t frighten me.” After a pause—“I’d hate to die twice. Its so boring” (p. 438).


At the beginning of this century, the famous Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck in a November, 1901 Methodist Review (writing on “Creation or Development”—summarized in May, 1988 Outlook), observed that in the past theologians had been justly accused of usurping all of the sciences. “But no science has ever done this more entirely than physical science in the present day…it forces its method upon all the sciences, and considers the mechanical interpretation the only one that is warranted to the claim of being scientific.” Thus, led by physicists, “man has undertaken the gigantic effort of interpreting the whole world, and all things that are therein, in their origin, essence and end, what is called purely and strictly scientifically, that is without God…only and alone from an immanent self-development.” Looking ahead, he predicted the failure and disappearance of all efforts to compromise with this atheistic, all-inclusive, totalitarian movement of these “leaders in the twentieth century,” who have determined to clear out “whatever of the old Christian world-view consciously or unconsciously still remains in our laws and morals, in our education and civilization.” He cited the lack of evidence for this all-inclusive theory, and showed how it relativized and destroyed all morals, for, “from this viewpoint there is no difference of good and evil, of right and wrong, of truth and falsehood.” And, perhaps most significantly, it can give no one any hope for the future. “Complete bankruptcy, moral and spiritual, is the end of the modem world-view,” confirming Paul’s word “that he who is without God and without Christ is also without hope in the world.”

As we approach the end of this century, one is struck by the way it has, almost to the letter, realized the prediction of Bavinck. And one could hardly find an example that more dramatically exemplifies this development than this extraordinary biography of the century’s leading quantum physicist, Richard Feynman (1918–1988). His single-minded determination to understand everything in the physical world, drove him to his large measure of popular success in his chosen field. At the same time, after the tragedy of his young wife’s death, his grossly immoral behavior made him all too typical of the moral breakdown that is rapidly destroying all levels of our society, that of leading scientists as well as all others. Despite his moral failures, in scientific matters Feynman could be extraordinarily conscientious—just as many in such fields may be. Think of his heroic effort, though dying, to get to the bottom of the Challenger cover-up! Though he had set out to try to understand the universe, and was hailed as the world’s top quantum physicist, he disappointed his followers and colleagues whom he had led in the effort to find in their field the “grand unified theory” that would explain everything. Feynman himself refused to concede that they were anywhere near success, insisting, “There isn’t any theory today…that we know is right…” (p.434–5). He died facing failure—in every way.

No Christian should be surprised at this. God’s Word begins, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” “Then God said, ‘Let there be light; and there was light.’” And to this day no man, not even the most clever physicist in the world, knows what it is or how He did it! This book is an extraordinary testimony of a top physicist, and atheist, to that fact! (“Who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” I Cor. 2:16; Isa. 40:13). In this lost and hopeless world God has given us His revelation. He “so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:16,36). The path of the believer in Him is “like the shining sun, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day,” but that of the unbeliever, persisting in the revolt against Him, is “like darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble” (Prov. 4:18,19). Those are the two alternatives, for us and everyone else.

Rev. De Jong, former editor of The Outlook, retired from the ministry in the Christian Reformed Church. His membership now resides in the Dutton Independent Reformed Church.