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An Open Palm
on September 23, 2002
A late relative of mine, a world-renowned physicist, once said: "One has to be an open palm. As soon as it clenches into a fist, the person looses the ability to learn and to enjoy new things. And that is the onset of old age".
Looking at our parents and grandparents, older colleagues, and now increasingly often at my own contemporaries and at myself, I am beginning to understand what a hard task it is - to remain an open palm.
Almost no one avoids the nostalgic illusion - in our better days snow was whiter and girls prettier, and what we've been taught is the only correct doctrine. One only sees how ridiculous such claims are when confronted with a different, higher breed of people, who remain curious and young at heart at any age. Richard Feynman was one of such people.
In case someone does not know, Richard Feynman was a physicist, a Nobel prize winner, a participant of the Manhattan project, the founder of quantum mechanics. I have no idea what it is; they say, though, that a new race of computers will shortly change our world and our perception of it; these computers will be supposedly built on principles foreseen by Feynman.
Feynman's book, subtitled "Adventures of a Curious Character", is his memoir - not written down, but narrated in conversations with a close friend. It is very clear that nothing surpassed his ardent passion for physics. When Feynman spoke about his subject, he rejected all notions of etiquette and subordination; Nils Bohr and Einstein could discuss their new ideas only with him - other colleagues just gaped in awe at any dictum of theirs. Feynman writes about the very *process* of discovery - this is probably the only sincere and authentic description of scientific creativity of such scale in literature. In the closing chapter, Feynman speaks about the scientist's responsibility - not to society or colleagues, but rather to himself and his science; all his recollections, serious and jocular, clearly demonstrate how serious it was to him.
They say a gifted person is gifted in anything. Feynman was unusually eager to prove this dubious statement. He came to Brazil to lecture on physics, and ended up playing frigideira and winning, with his fellow musicians, the annual competition at a street parade in Rio. He recorded a percussion-only soundtrack for a ballet, and the performance won a second place at a prestigious competition in Paris. He tackled pencils and brushes without any knowledge or experience in paining, and soon became a hot commodity on the art market. In "alien" domains Feynman always acted incognito or under an alias - he never wanted to be the proverbial Dr. Johnson's dog, whose ability to walk on its hind legs was judged by the fact that it was a dog, not because it walked well.
Feynman's free-time undertakings were usually perfected to a degree which would be the crowning glory of many a professional career. He spent one of his summer holidays working under James Watson, the discoverer of the DNA, and soon was able to read a sound lecture about his own findings to Harvard professors of biology. All this seems improbable; but Feynman never admires himself too much, his boasting is good-natured, and he laughs at himself at least as much as at others.
He was a master of that, of course. Almost half the book is devoted to his practical jokes. During his work in top-secret labs of Los Alamos, he developed a taste for cracking safes; the pinnacle of his burglar's career was the simultaneous cracking of three safes containing *all* US nuclear secrets.
A womaniser without narcissism, a braggart without pomp, a jester without malice, a unique, but amiable character - Feynman is the most loveable memoir writer that could ever be. He never took anything for granted - having read an article about the bloodhounds' phenomenal olfactory abilities, he set to investigate humans and found out that ours are not much worse, just underused. He hated pompous fools; the description of an "interdisciplinary" conference, where the narrator's common sense and logic fail in a combat with "intellectuals", is a real tragic comedy. He was open to any new experience (unless it threatened to damage the thinking mechanism - which explains his abstinence from alcohol and drugs of any sort). Since his childhood, when he fixed radios by thought, to his old age, he remained an open palm.
An excellent lesson for any of us.