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Richard Feynman at Los Alamos

ISSUE:  Summer 2010

Richard Feynman was a physicist at Los Alamos. His wife, Arline, lived in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Albuquerque during most of his time on the “Hill.” She died in 1945, shortly before the Trinity test.

Once people thought that angels
beat their wings to push the earth
in its ordained track around the sun,
as easily as we might move a blackboard
covered with Serber’s latest figures.
That view has now been somewhat modified.

The blank, unassuming face of a blackboard
makes it easier to calculate the sun’s
mass, and gravity’s figures
speak louder than the handful of earth
in a man. Numbers don’t change
their minds, like people or angels.

As a boy, I thought I’d been left on earth
by aliens. I could figure
the rotational velocity of a changeup,
but my aim was a radian off. While the sun
arced through the blue vault like an angel,
I scrawled resonance equations on a blackboard.

On my first drive up to Los Alamos, the sun
on cottonwoods and sandstone transformed
me. I’d been thinking of Arline
in the TB ward in Albuquerque. The doctors figured
she had a year. My heart was a blackboard
covered in odds. The naked earth

rose before me then like the figure
of an angel.
I could spend my life slaving at a blackboard
and never quantify the way light shifted
in her eyes. I lay down on a bare patch of earth
to think. My chest was heavy with sun.

I chose the smaller job: alter
the course of a war. Armed with a blackboard,
I would earn my place on earth.
Behind me, an angel
beat her wings. I circled the sun
with a lasso of figures.


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