I’m thinking about the great American physicist, Richard Feynman, sitting in New Mexico, at the bed of his dying wife. He’d been called, and told that she had only hours to live; he’d hitchhiked from Los Alamos, where he was working on the top secret atomic bomb project. It was 1945.
He walks to her bedside, kisses her; she is breathing shallow breaths. We are still at war and six weeks later, America will explode its first atomic bomb. He stands there, sits there, watches her, kisses her, and very quietly, the Hodgkin’s disease that had attacked her young body takes her. She was in her 20s, he was 27. They’d been married only two years. The nurse records the time of death: 9:21 p.m. He is empty with loss. What few things she had, he packs up; he arranges for a cremation, walks back into her room and sees that the clock had strangely stopped ticking. The hands are frozen at 9:21, the very moment of her death.
I know how this story would feel to me. It would be as though the universe had somehow noticed what had happened, that some invisible hand slipped into my world and pointed, as if to say, “We know. This is part of the plan.”
So many of us, I think, would have this sense. Lawrence Krauss, in his new biography of Feynman, Quantum Man, says, “We seem to be hard-wired to find that what happens to each of us naturally appears to take on a special significance and meaning, even if it’s an accident.” But Feynman, he says, was unable to think that way. He couldn’t and he wouldn’t.
What he did was, he remembered that the clock had been fragile. He had been asked to fuss with it; he’d fixed it several times. In his memoirs (that is, in his version of this story), he says the nurse must have picked up the clock to determine the time of death, unsettled the workings inside, and the clock stopped. No miracle. Just an ordinary, accidental jostle. Here he is, describing a moment of enormous significance, and he won’t allow a Signifier.
[life] A Deathbed Story I Would Never Tell … a story about a stopped clock and Richard Feynman’s Wife …