Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Is God a mathematician?

The Caltech scientists received me cordially, and talked freely about their adventures in working on the bomb. I remember one physicist telling me, for instance, how he drove to the Trinity test site in New Mexico with the dread plutonium core in the back seat of his car. But to a man, one after another, they warned me so earnestly not to try to see Richard Feynman that I began to think of him as a human plutonium core. However, I had nothing to lose so I did try, and somehow I found myself in his office, talking to a lean guy in white shirtsleeves, with long hair and a sharply humorous countenance calling to mind a bust Voltaire. It didn't go well at first.

"You know," he said, as I groped to explain my purpose, "while you're talking, you're not learning anything." So I blurted out baldly, any old way, my vision of a fiction work throwing a rope around the whole global war. As I spoke, an enigmatic look came over that strong face, something like remote tolerant amusement. "Well, that's the sort of thing genius reaches out for," he said, and he took over the conversation.

In swift strokes Feynman brought the entire Manhattan project to life, the excitement and the perils alike, mentioning that once in a laboratory corridor he passed uranium materials stacked so carelessly that a chain reaction was within a whisker of going off. His main point was that the whole enterprise was gigantically messy, and that the atomic bomb was by no means at a frontier of science. He put it so: "It wasn't a lion hunt, it was a rabbit shoot." There was no Nobel prize, that is to say, in the concept or the calculations; it was just a challenge, if a huge one, to audacious innovative technology and brute industrial effort.

This formidable fellow walked out of the building with me, and said as we were parting: "Do you know calculus?" I admitted that I didn't. "You had better learn it," he said. "It's the language God talks."

Except from Herman Wouk's The Language God Talks: On science and religion
From The New Scientist

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