divendres, 22 de juliol de 2011

Lying to the Queen of England

Feynman had looked forward to meeting Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, the Japanese physicist who shared the Nobel Prize with him. Tomonaga had independently made some of the same discoveries as Feynman, five years earlier, in the total isolation of wartime Japan. He shared with Feynman not only ideas about physics but also experiences of personal tragedy. In the spring of 1945, Feynman was nursing his beloved first wife, Arline, through the last weeks of her life until he watched her die from tuberculosis. In the same spring, Tomonaga was helping a group of his students to survive in the ashes of Tokyo, after a firestorm devastated the city and killed an even greater number of people than the nuclear bomb would kill in Hiroshima four months later. Feynman and Tomonaga shared three outstanding qualities: emotional toughness, intellectual integrity, and a robust sense of humor.

To Feynman’s dismay, Tomonaga failed to appear in Stockholm. The Ottaviani-Myrick book has Tomonaga explaining what happened:

Although I sent a letter saying that I would be “pleased to attend,” I loathed the thought of going, thinking that the cold would be severe, as the ceremony was to be held in December, and that the inevitable formalities would be tiresome. After I was named a Nobel Prize awardee, many people came to visit, bringing liquor. I had barrels of it. One day, my father’s younger brother, who loved whiskey, happened to stop by and we both began drinking gleefully. We drank a little too much, and then, seizing the opportunity that my wife had gone out shopping, I entered the bathroom to take a bath. There I slipped and fell down, breaking six of my ribs… It was a piece of good luck in that unhappy incident.
After Tomonaga recovered from his injuries, he was invited to England to receive another high honor requiring a formal meeting with royalty. This time he did not slip in the bathtub. He duly appeared at Buckingham Palace to shake hands with the English Queen. The Queen did not know that he had failed to travel to Stockholm. She innocently asked him whether he had enjoyed his meeting with the King of Sweden. Tomonaga was totally flummoxed. He could not bring himself to confess to the Queen that he had got drunk and broken his ribs. He said that he had enjoyed his conversation with the King very much. He remarked afterward that for the rest of his life he would be carrying a double burden of guilt, first for getting drunk, and second for telling a lie to the Queen of England.

Freeman Dyson, The New York review of books. The dramatic picture of Richard Feynman.