A Deathbed Story I Would Never Tell — by ROBERT KRULWICH
We all tell stories. That’s how we share. That’s how we remember. Storytelling is what humans do. It’s part of our nature — but natures, I’ve noticed, differ. I am not a scientist. I don’t have a mind for what they do, which is:
- to stick, doggedly, to hard facts
- keeping emotion out of the room [It’s not just emotions but all purely, personal, subjective experience our brain’s — default preferences – at bay.]
- It’s a discipline for them, a way of being, that makes them, well, scientists.
For example, 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.
Explaining That Clock
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.
I couldn’t do that. I would want to, almost need to, imagine a higher audience for a moment like that.
And maybe that’s a difference between scientists and those of us who make our living in the storytelling game. Scientists thrill at the testimony of hard facts. We (or should I say “I”) want to add a dash of warm color to the cold blacks and whites. I don’t want to make things up, exactly. I just want to imagine that the things that happen to me just might have — and deserve — the attention of the universe.
A Different Kind Of Vanity
Great scientists have a different kind of vanity. They seem to think that the thing to celebrate is the power of reason; to notice, to test, to discover nature’s secrets hiding in plain sight, with the best tools we have: logic and observation. For them, the most beautiful thing is our mind.
[This is not vanity to us but deep humility and an astounding belief, proven, that by very hard work and restraint on the natural human and animal tendencies to act and think only in the moment and accept the brain’s easiest make believe ideas.]