The Other Side of Feynman


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“Yesterday I went for a long walk in the spring sunshine with Trudy Eyges and Richard Feynman. Feynman is the young American professor, half genius and half buffoon, who keeps all physicists and their children amused with his effervescent vitality. He has, however, as I have recently learned, a great deal more to him than that, and you may be interested in his story. The part of it with which I am concerned began when he arrived at Los Alamos; there he found and fell in love with a brilliant and beautiful girl, who was tubercular and had been exiled to New Mexico in the hope of stopping the disease. When Feynman arrived, things had got so bad that the doctors gave her only a year to live, but he determined to marry her, and marry her he did; and for a year and a half, while working at full pressure on the project, he nursed her and made her days cheerful. She died just before the end of the war…

As Feynman says, anyone who has been happily married once cannot long remain single, and so yesterday we were discussing his new problem, this time again a girl in New Mexico with whom he is desperately in love. This time the problem is not tuberculosis, but the girl is a Catholic. You can imagine all the troubles this raises, and if there is one thing Feynman could not do to save his soul, it is to become a Catholic himself. So we talked and talked and sent the sun down the sky and went on talking in the darkness. At the end of it, Feynman was no nearer to the solution of his problems, but it must have done him good to get them off his chest. I think that he will marry the girl and that it will be a success, but far be it from me to give advice to anybody on such a subject. […]

I came to the conclusion that he is an exceptionally well-balanced person, whose opinions are always his own and not other people’s. He is very good at getting on with people, and as we came West, he altered his voice and expressions unconsciously to fit his surroundings, until he was saying ‘I don’t know noth’n’ like the rest of them.

Feynman’s young lady turned him down when he arrived in Albuquerque, having attached herself in his absence to somebody else. He stayed there for only five days to make sure, then left her for good and spent the rest of the summer enjoying himself with horses in New Mexico and Nevada.”


Pulled from two letters by Freeman Dyson, now 94, written in 1948 and just published in the new book Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters. (I lifted the title from this Nautilus article, which excerpts some of the book.)

Image courtesy: Jim Britt

F. Scott Fitzgerald on Succeeding Early in Life


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“The compensation of a very early success is a conviction that life is a romantic matter. In the best sense one stays young. When the primary objects of love and money could be taken for granted and a shaky eminence had lost its fascination, I had fair years to waste, years that I can’t honestly regret, in seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea.

Once in the mid-1920s I was driving along the High Corniche Road through the twilight with the whole French Riviera twinkling on the sea below. As far ahead as I could see was Monte Carlo, and though it was out of season and there were no Grand Dukes left to gamble and E. Phillips Oppenheim was a fat industrious man in my hotel, who lived in a bath-robe — the very name was so incorrigibly enchanting that I could only stop the car and like the Chinese whisper: ‘Ah me! Ah me!’ It was not Monte Carlo I was looking at. It was back into the mind of the young man with cardboard soles who had walked the streets of New York. I was him again — for an instant I had the good fortune to share his dreams, I who had no more dreams of my own. And there are still times when I creep up on him, surprise him on an autumn morning in New York or a spring night in Carolina when it is so quiet that you can hear a dog barking in the next county. But never again as during that all too short period when he and I were one person, when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment — when life was literally a dream.”


From the ending of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1937 essay “Early Success”, which you’ll find a lot of places but was first collected in My Lost City: Personal Essays, 1920-1940.

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Image courtesy: Lit Hub

The Man Who Most Believed in Himself


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“[Franklin] Roosevelt faced formidable challenges as president, but he never doubted that he would cope with them, for he believed that he belonged in the White House. He had sat on Grover Cleveland’s knee, cast his first vote for Uncle Teddy, and seen Woodrow Wilson at close range; but the office seemed peculiarly his almost as a birthright. As Richard Neustadt has observed: ‘Roosevelt, almost alone among our Presidents, had no conception of the office to live up to; he was it. His image of the office was himself-in-office.’ He loved the majesty of the position, relished its powers, and rejoiced in the opportunity it offered for achievement. ‘The essence of Roosevelt’s Presidency,’ Clinton Rossiter has written, ‘was his airy eagerness to meet the age head on. Thanks to his flair for drama, he acted as if never in all history had there been times like our own.’

A Washington reporter noted in 1933: ‘No signs of care are visible to his main visitors or at the press conferences. He is amiable, urbane and apparently untroubled. He appears to have a singularly fortunate faculty for not becoming flustered. Those who talk with him informally in the evenings report that he busies himself with his stamp collection, discussing in an illuminating fashion the affairs of state while he waves his shears in the air.’ Even after Roosevelt had gone through the trials of two terms of office, Time reported: ‘He has one priceless attribute: a knack of locking up his and the world’s worries in some secret mental compartment, and then enjoying himself to the top of his bent. This quality of survival, of physical toughness, of champagne ebullience is one key to the big man. Another key is this: no one has ever heard him admit that he cannot walk.”


Pulled from William E. Leuchtenburg’s essay “The First Modern President,” which you’ll find in The American President or Fred I. Greenstein’s great collection Leadership in the Modern Presidency.

In context, that last sentence really does it. (Neustadt’s quote above is pulled from Presidential Power and the Modern Presidents, for my money one of the most entertaining reads on the art of Presidential leadership.)

Image: ScienceSource

What ’60s Colleges Did Right


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“The irony is that the supposedly bland, conventional schools and colleges of the 1950s and early 1960s incubated what was perhaps the most radical generation of American citizens since the country’s founding. Young people who were incensed by the denial of voting rights out there, the Vietnam War out there, nuclear proliferation out there, capitalism out there, colonialism out there. The universities of our time instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal identities and campus pseudo-politics that they have much less interest in, less engagement with, and frankly less knowledge of the great out there. Neither Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who studied Greek) nor Martin Luther King Jr. (who studied Christian theology) nor Angela Davis (who studied Western philosophy) received an identity-based education. And it is difficult to imagine them becoming who they became had they been cursed with one. The fervor of their rebellion demonstrated the degree to which their education had developed in them a feeling of democratic solidarity, which is rare in America today.

Whatever you wish to say about the political wanderings of the sixties generation—and I’ve said a lot—they were, in their own way, patriots. They cared about what happened to their fellow citizens and cared when they felt America’s democratic principles had been violated. Even when the fringes of the student movement adopted a wooden, Marxist rhetoric, it always sounded more like Yankee Doodle Dandy than Wagner.”


Taken from the ending of Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. I highly recommend Lilla’s short book, a rare example of someone writing, as it were, across the aisle — to try and problem-solve for those he has no direct political allegiance to. Since these kinds of prescriptions aren’t being offered from the left-wing of the liberal coalition now, take your good advice where you can get it.

This is the second-to-last paragraph of the book, and it ends with a continuation of this thought:

… Most [of my generation] remain well to the left of me but we enjoy disagreeing and respect arguments based on evidence. I still think they are unrealistic; they think I don’t see that dreaming is sometimes the most realistic thing one can do. (The older I get the more I think they have a point.) But we shake our heads in unison when we discuss what passes for politics and civic education in our country…

The screenshot: from The Graduate

Dostoyevsky’s Example of a Good Kid


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“In his childhood and youth he was not very effusive, not even very talkative, not from mistrust, not from shyness or sullen unsociability, but even quite the contrary, from something different, from some inner preoccupation, as it were, strictly personal, of no concern to others, but so important for him that because of it he would, as it were, forget others. But he did love people; he lived all his life, it seemed, with complete faith in people, and yet no one ever considered him either naive or a simpleton…

Thus he possessed in himself, in his very nature, so to speak, artlessly and directly, the gift of awakening [in others] a special love for himself. It was the same with him at school, too, and yet it would seem that he was exactly the kind of child who awakens mistrust, sometimes mockery, and perhaps also hatred, in his schoolmates. He used, for instance, to lapse into revery and, as it were, set himself apart. Even as a child, he liked to go into a corner and read books, and yet his schoolmates, too, loved him so much that he could decidedly be called everyone’s favorite all the while he was at school. He was seldom playful, seldom even merry, but anyone could see at once, at a glance, that this was not from any kind of sullenness, that, on the contrary, he was serene and even-tempered. He never wanted to show off in front of his peers. Maybe for that very reason he was never afraid of anyone, and yet the boys realized at once that he was not at all proud of his fearlessness, but looked as if he did not realize that he was brave and fearless. He never remembered an offense. Sometimes an hour after the offense he would speak to the offender or answer some question with as trustful and serene an expression as though nothing had happened between them at all. And he did not look as if he had accidentally forgotten or intentionally forgiven the offense; he simply did not consider it an offense, and this decidedly captivated the boys and conquered them… Incidentally, he was always among the best of his class in his studies, but was never the first.”


From the description of Alyosha in chapter four of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. Had FD lived, his plan was to write a sequel to the book to tell the rest of Alyosha’s story.

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Image: Wikicommons

Box to the Right Rhythm


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“I was jiggling my shoulders as I shadowboxed, trying to get that rhythm flowing through my arms and legs… in the minutes before I would box, I was searching for that rhythm. In some of the bootleg shows there had been a band playing between the bouts, and that music would be blaring as I came into the ring. I always wished they had continued to play while I was boxing. I think I would’ve boxed better.

Rhythm is everything in boxing. Every move you make starts with your heart, and that’s in rhythm or you’re in trouble.

Your rhythm should set the pace of the fight. If it does, then you penetrate your opponent’s rhythm. You make him fight your fight, and that’s what boxing is all about. In the dressing room that night I could feel my rhythm beginning to move through me, and it assured me that everything would be alright.”


Sugar Ray Robinson, reflecting in his autobiography Sugar Ray. Pictured above: Robinson walking on Ali’s right.

You’ll also find this quote in Robert O’Meally’s The Jazz Cadence of American Culture, which features the following observation from Max Roach stuck right in front of it.

Interviewer: Do you think boxing is comparable to music?

Max Roach: I think it is a definitive skill that’s been raised to the level of an art form by black fighters. It’s not just beating somebody, but is as highly-developed as fencing or tennis. Rhythm has something to do with timing.

Where, when, and how to slip punches is all rhythmic. Setting up somebody is done rhythmically. I know quite a few boxers who make a point of having something to do with a percussion instrument. Sugar Ray Robinson and Johnny Bratton both played the drums. Quite a few fighters got involved in music so they could develop the kind of coordination that was required. Dancing has a lot to do with good boxing too because it’s very rhythmic. The same is true of baseball, and you could see it in Jim Brown’s running when he was playing football. The way he could slip tacklers came from a keen rhythmic sense, as did the knowledge of when to take a breath and when to make a phrase, so to speak.

Photo credit: Neil Leifer

The Calling of an Artist


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“On Sunday 28 June, mid-afternoon, Jed accompanied Olga to Roissy airport. It was sad: something inside him understood that they were living a moment of mortal sadness. The fine, calm weather did not favor the expression of the appropriate feelings. He could have interrupted the process of breaking up, thrown himself at her feet, begged her not to take the plane; she probably would have listened to him. […]

Many years later, when he had become famous — extremely famous, truth be told — Jed would be asked numerous times what it meant, in his eyes, to be an artist. He would find nothing very interesting or original to say, except one thing, which he would consequently repeat in each interview: to be an artist, in his view, was above all to be someone submissive. Someone who submitted himself to mysterious, unpredictable messages… messages which nonetheless commanded you in an imperious and categorical manner, without leaving the slightest possibility of escape — except by losing any notion of integrity and self-respect. These messages could involve destroying a work, or even an entire body of work, to set off in a radically new direction, or even occasionally no direction at all, without having any project at all, or the slightest hope of continuing. It was thus, and only thus, that the artist’s condition could, sometimes, by described as difficult. It was also thus, and only thus, that it distinguished itself from other professions or trades…”


Taken from about a quarter into Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel The Map and the Territory. If you read his next novel, a masterpiece in this reader’s view, that word “submitted” should take on some new meaning.

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“Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilium but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. A poet who may have been a beggar and a ballad-monger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew of nothing larger than such little towns is a historical fact…”


Pulled from midway into Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man, about the book Alexander slept with under his pillow. Mark Van Doren: “Homer is a world; Virgil is a style.”

Da Vinci’s To-Do Lists


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“My favorite gems in his notebooks are his to-do lists, which sparkle with his curiosity. One of them, dating from the 1490s in Milan, is that day’s list of things he wants to learn. ‘The measurement of Milan and its suburbs,’ is the first entry. This has a practical purpose, as revealed by an item later in the list: ‘Draw Milan.’ Others show him relentlessly seeking out people whose brains he could pick: ‘Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle… Ask Giannino the Bombardier about how the tower of Ferrara is walled… Ask Benedetto Protinari by what means they walk on ice in Flanders… Get a master of hydraulics to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner… Get the measurement of the sun promised me by Maestro Giovanni Francese, the Frenchman.’ He is insatiable.

Over and over again, year after year, Leonardo lists things he must do and learn. Some involve the type of close observation most of us rarely pause to do. ‘Observe the goose’s foot: if it were always open or always closed the creature would not be able to make any kind of movement.’ Others involve why-is-the-sky-blue questions about phenomena so commonplace that we rarely pause to wonder about them. ‘Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air when it ought to be the contrary since the water is heavier and thicker than the air?’

Best of all are the questions that seem completely random. ‘Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,’ he instructs himself. Who on earth would decide one day, for no apparent reason, that he wanted to know what the tongue of a woodpecker looks like? How would you even find out? It’s not information Leonardo needed to paint a picture or even to understand the flight of birds. But there it is, and, as we shall see, there are fascinating things to learn about the tongue of the woodpecker. The reason he wanted to know was because he was Leonardo: curious, passionate, and always filled with wonder.”


Pulled from the intro to Walter Isaacson’s new biography, Leonardo da Vinci.

Some thirty chapters and five-hundred pages later, Isaacson has us at the book’s coda, “Describe the Tongue of the Woodpecker.” Here’s that coda, in full:

The tongue of a woodpecker can extend more than three times the length of its bill. When not in use, it retracts into the skull and its cartilage-like structure continues past the jaw to wrap around the bird’s head and then curve down to its nostril. In addition to digging out grubs from a tree, the long tongue protects the woodpecker’s brain. When the bird smashes its beak repeatedly into tree bark, the force exerted on its head is ten times what would kill a human. But its bizarre tongue and supporting structure act as a cushion, shielding the brain from shock.

There is no reason you actually need to know any of this. It is information that has no real utility for your life, just as it had none for Leonardo. But I thought maybe, after reading this book, that you, like Leonardo, who one day put ‘Describe the tongue of the woodpecker’ on one of his eclectic and oddly inspiring to-do lists, would want to know. Just out of curiosity. Pure curiosity.

Meet Oskar Schindler


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“In Poland’s deepest autumn, a tall young man in an expensive overcoat, double-breasted dinner jacket beneath it and — in the lapel of the dinner jacket — a large ornamental gold-on-black-enamel Hakenkreuz (swastika) emerged from a fashionable apartment building in Straszewskiego Street, on the edge of the ancient center of Cracow, and saw his chauffeur waiting with fuming breath by the open door of an enormous and, even in this blackened world, lustrous Adler limousine. ‘Watch the pavement, Herr Schindler,’ said the chauffeur. ‘It’s as icy as a widow’s heart.’ In observing this small winter scene, we are on safe ground. The tall young man would to the end of his days wear doublebreasted suits, would — being something of an engineer — always be gratified by large dazzling vehicles, would — though a German and at this point in history a German of some influence — always be the sort of man with whom a Polish chauffeur could safely crack a lame, comradely joke.

But it will not be possible to see the whole story under such easy character headings. For this is the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil, a triumph in eminently measurable, statistical, unsubtle terms… Fatal human malice is the staple of narrators, original sin the mother-fluid of historians. But it is a risky enterprise to have to write of virtue.

‘Virtue’ in fact is such a dangerous word that we have to rush to explain; Herr Oskar Schindler, risking his glimmering shoes on the icy pavement in this old and elegant quarter of Cracow, was not a virtuous young man in the customary sense. In this city he kept house with his German mistress and maintained a long affair with his Polish secretary. His wife, Emilie, chose to live most of the time at home in Moravia, though she sometimes came to Poland to visit him. There’s this to be said for him: that to all his women he was a well-mannered and generous lover. But under the normal interpretation of ‘virtue,’ that’s no excuse.

Likewise, he was a drinker. Some of the time he drank for the pure glow of it, at other times with associates, bureaucrats, SS men for more palpable results. Like few others, he was capable of staying canny while drinking, of keeping his head. That again, though — under the narrow interpretation of morality — has never been an excuse for carousing. And although Herr Schindler’s merit is well documented, it is a feature of his ambiguity that he worked within or, at least, on the strength of a corrupt and savage scheme, one that filled Europe with camps of varying but consistent inhumanity and created a submerged, unspoken-of nation of prisoners.”


Excerpted from the intro to Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark (later retitled to Schindler’s List). When asked, years later, why he’d acted the way he did during the holocaust, Schindler apparently replied, “I could never abuse something with a human face.”

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Odysseus’s Mind


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The Odyssey is a homecoming. It’s what the Greeks called a nostos, which means a return home, and that word is very close to the Greek word for mind, nous. Both come from an Indo-European root, nos, which means a return from darkness to light. And that’s what Odysseus does, in both senses.

He is hidden, for seven years, on the island of Calypso, who is really enchanted with him. She doesn’t want to let him go. It’s a marvelous scene when she finally tells him, ‘Alright you can go, but do you really want to? You can stay here with me and be immortal and ageless all your days.’ What would you say to Calypso at that point?

Odysseus, always thinking — this is one of his epithets, polymetis, many, many thoughts — he’s always ready for any occasion, and this might be a difficult situation for him. If you’ve ever left someone who didn’t want you to leave… well, you know what I’m talking about. So he says this to her:

‘Goddess and mistress, don’t be angry with me.
I know very well that Penelope,
For all her virtues, would pale beside you.
She’s only human, and you are a goddess,
Eternally young. Still, I want to go back.
My heart aches for the day I return to my home.
If fate hits me hard as I sail the deep purple,
I’ll weather it like the sea-bitten veteran I am.
God knows I’ve suffered and had my share of sorrows
In war and at sea. I can take more if I have to.’

They make love that night for the last time, then he’s off on a raft on his struggle to return home.

He faces many adversities. He meets them all with a mind that is flexible, ready for any twist of fate. He can get out of seemingly any situation, no matter how difficult. It is by virtue of his truly incredible mind that he finally arrives back at Ithaca.”


Stanley Lombardo, introducing a reading from his translation of Homer’s Odyssey, for my money the best version of my favorite story. Watch S.L.’s superb reading below:

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