Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was a colorful, eccentric (some might even say wacky), brilliant thinker who is generally considered one of the two or three leading physicists of the latter half of the twentieth century.
Among his many other accomplishments, he was part of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico that developed the atomic bomb. He also introduced an ingenious schematic form of simple notations (now called Feynman Diagrams) to describe the complex behavior of subatomic particles. In 1965, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum electrodynamics. He died of a rare form of cancer in 1988, but remains a popular cult figure for science lovers everywhere.
His varied interests and delightful sense of humor have put his whimsical memoirs (such as Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?) in continual demand.
Several months after Feynman’s death, James Gleick, the well-known historian of science, embarked on a biography of Feynman (Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman). In papers sent to him by Feynman’s second wife Gweneth, he found a letter that Feynman had written to his first wife, Arline, in 1946, sixteen months after her death from tuberculosis. Feynman was 27 when she died; she was only 25. They had been high-school sweethearts.
Richard and Arline on their wedding day
This beautiful love letter serves as a Valentine that transcends time and death. The postscript is typical Feynman.
October 17, 1946
I adore you, sweetheart.
I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.
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 that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will 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 you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.
I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) 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 very nice ones 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.
Richard and Arline at the Albuquerque sanatorium