Richard Feynman’s letter to his dead wife

Richard Feynman’s first wife, his high school sweetheart Arline Greenbaum, died of a rare form of tuberculosis at age 25. He was crazy in love with her, and, when she was near death, he rushed from Los Alamos, where he was working on the Manhattan Project, to be by her side at the Albuquerque sanatorium. She died on on June 16, 1945. You can get a fuller account of their romance and her death at the Big Think and Brainpickings, both of which reproduce Feynman’s letter to the departed Arline.

Photos from Brain Pickings

The letter was written in 1946, a year and four months after Arline died, and was sealed in an envelope and stashed away. After Feynman’s own death from cancer, biographer James Gleick found the letter in a box of papers sent to him by Feynman’s widow, Gweneth. Imagine the poignancy of opening that envelope and reading this beautiful and tear-making postmortem farewell. At the end it also has a bit of his characteristic humor (Feynman was an atheist.)

October 17, 1946

D’Arline,

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.

Rich.

PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.

You can hear actor Oscar Isaac read this letter aloud, fighting back tears, on a video at YouTube.

33 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    That’s a heck of a lament.

    • Filippo
      Posted September 3, 2018 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

      sub

  2. Mark R.
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read this before, and it always chokes me up. Especially the line: “I love my wife. My wife is dead.”

  3. darrelle
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Apparently he excelled at everything. This letter is hard to read because it is so accurate.

  4. CAS
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    I had Feynman teaching some of my classes. Aside from being brilliant, he was a great person. He was willing to spend time with students and even invited us to his parties. He had a very esoteric collection of friends that would sometimes host these parties. He was a unique person, unlike any other physicist I’ve known.

  5. Christopher
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    He has fallen out of favor with the regressives, who have decided he was a misogynist for going to strip clubs later in life. A bl*gger at Scientific American was let go for writing a post about him in a positive light. But, I dunno. This doesn’t read like a letter from a woman-hater to me.

    • ubernez
      Posted September 3, 2018 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

      Yep.
      And how do they square that with ‘allowing women agency over their own bodies’, and not shaming women who choose to work in those clubs – or indeed as sex workers in legal institutions?
      Rhetorical. The point is to tear down everyone, label everyone, shame everyone – because they want a world where there are no labels or judgement…oh wait…

  6. dabertini
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Poignant indeed.

  7. rickflick
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Quite a remarkable letter. Feynman sticks in my mind as he was giving testimony regarding the Challenger explosion.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uljATTG58TY

    • alexandra Moffat
      Posted September 3, 2018 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      Yes – he exposed the idiots and/or cover uppers on the investigative board. With characteristic simplicity. O rings. If I recall correctly, he refused to sign the final report on the Challenger, although he did refrain from protesting.

      We need his way of thinking desperately now.
      I take heart that he lived, that such existed.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 3, 2018 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

        He actually did reach an agreement and he did sign the report. His critical report, essentially unaltered, was included as an appendix F. It appears president Reagan did not read the appendices, but, of course, many others did.

        https://science.ksc.nasa.gov/shuttle/missions/51-l/docs/rogers-commission/Appendix-F.txt

        • alexandra Moffat
          Posted September 3, 2018 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

          Thank you.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 3, 2018 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

          I can’t reach that, after numerous attempts, ‘the server is taking too long to respond’.

          (According to Motherboard,
          https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/nz7byb/the-challenger-disasters-minority-report
          Appendix F is included in Feynman’s What Do You care What Other People Think
          which I’ve got somewhere, if I could only find it)

          cr

          • rickflick
            Posted September 3, 2018 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

            Just Google, Feynman report, appendix F.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 3, 2018 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

        The last line in Feynman’s report on the Challenger accident:

        “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over
        public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 3, 2018 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

          A sentence that I, as an engineer, sometimes kept on a piece of paper pinned above my desk. Usually when the management were going a bit too cloud-cuckoo-land with some plan.

          cr

  8. Posted September 3, 2018 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    Is there anything Feynman didn’t do well. The world is poorer with his absence.

  9. Posted September 3, 2018 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    I had never been aware of this letter from Richard Feynman to his dead wife. I am no Feynman, but what he wrote speaks volumes to me. My husband and I were married for 57 years when he died of cancer in 2016. In dreams, we still talk, sit at our computers in the office and discuss all kinds of topics (as we always did), travel the planet together, he sometimes walks faster than I can keep up and leaves me behind, so I get mad. All of the memories and dreams of things we did together bring him back to me. He is never far away. I write haiku to him. When I am ashes that can join his, we will be blended and spread in a favorite setting of our choice in the mountains amidst the pines. In our post-life travels, I hope some of our molecules can join in forming a new kind of life. If not, there’s a universe (or so) for our molecules to wander around together, or separately. What a wonderful time we had together.

    • mfdempsey1946
      Posted September 3, 2018 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for your statement about your late husband, which is affecting in the same way that Richard Feynman’s is about his late wife.

    • rickflick
      Posted September 3, 2018 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

      You lived a rich life.

    • Posted September 3, 2018 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

      Dear Rowena, how your generous openness and baring of soul touch my heart. Everything must still be fresh for you, and 2016 is just yesterday. Your note rings of hope that love lives on in our memories and the everyday stuff of life. Everywhere we see our loved ones along the paths we walk, in all the things they favoured. I think we needn’t correct anyone when they talk of their loved ones in the present tense, for they are still present in our minds and heart. When we are finally gone too, then there will be mingling of our stardust. You are so lucky, Rowena, for the depth and richness of your love.

  10. Dave Hammer
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    Rowena,

    This also was beautiful.

  11. Martin Levin
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Feynman is one of my heroes, both intellectual and moral. I read this in a volume of his letters and was intensely moved — the p.s. choked me up. His lectures on physics are available in both book and audio form and well worth listening to, even for non-physicists such as I.

  12. Posted September 3, 2018 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    Quite some time ago there was a movie (titled Infinity, I think) made about Richard and Arline. Not a great movie, but okay. Tear jerker. It starred Matthew Broderick as Feynman and Patricia Arquette as Arline.

  13. BJ
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

    The whole letter is brilliant, but that postscript is amazing.

  14. KD33
    Posted September 3, 2018 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    RF writes about this time in the entertaining “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” and the Gleick biography is a must. Feynman was one of the reasons I became a physicist. I met him a couple of times, and he visited our high school physics class. I even got to go to a math competition with is son, Carl, in the Feynman van, famous for Feynman diagrams painted on the side (worth a Google…)

    • Daninco
      Posted September 4, 2018 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      When I was 22 and living in Alaska, I managed to get dropped off via airplane at a remote cabin. I was there to read, write and figure out my life. After a whole day alone with my thoughts, I thankfully found an AM/FM radio up high on a shelf. It worked and I tuned into a radio program out of Anchorage where a book was read aloud for an hour each day. The book was SYJMF. After seven days, I was ready to be a physicist. I wasn’t quite sure what they were or what they did, but I wanted to be one. Luck was again in my court when this old guy (in his fifties!) at work convinced me to start the fall semester at Anchorage Community College. I was lucky again when a temporary teacher from the oil industry taught the intro physics class as I can’t imagine a better teacher. She was magic. (I’ve since lost her name unfortunately as I would love to drop here a line to thank her.) I was so enthused I transferred to the lower 48 and completed a BS in physics. And although I’ve been a professional programmer for almost 30 years, I use my physicist skills every day. Even better, now I’m that old guy trying to help young adults find a career that brings them joy.

      • rickflick
        Posted September 4, 2018 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        What a great story!

  15. Posted September 3, 2018 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Feynman’s love for his first wife Arline was intense, absolute and unconditional. He was truly a whole human being both intellectually and emotionally…

  16. Posted September 4, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Good story for those (deleted) who think that us with a scientific world view are passionless or “robots”.

  17. Posted September 4, 2018 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    What a mensch. It takes a substantial amount of courage to face up to a loss like that with total honesty and fidelity. But only to be expected of the man who also wrote that Nothing is mere. Now that’s a well functioning moral compass.


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