Finding Meaning

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Famous Physicists in Laguna

By skip Hellewell

Each week I scan the horizon for a topic about meaning worthy of 500 words in our beloved Indy. Today, it’s the great (and unconventional) physicist and Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman, one of the most interesting of the many interesting characters who visit our town.

In the 1930s, there was intense competition between U.C. Berkeley and Pasadena’s Caltech for the next big breakthrough in physics. Important players included Ernest Lawrence (of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory fame) at Berkeley and Robert Millikan at Caltech. Millikan, as brilliant at self-promotion as he was at physics, had won a Nobel prize in 1923. J. Robert Oppenheimer (who later ran WWII’s Manhattan Project that invented the atomic bomb) was moving back and forth between the schools.

These were exciting times, with crazy-smart guys jockeying for fame and Nobel Prizes. Lawrence won a Nobel Prize in 1939 and my theory is he used part of his prize money to buy a vacation home in Laguna Beach (it became the cool place for Pasadena people after Pacific Coast Highway connected us in 1926). I know this because Feynman, a brilliant mathematician and Nobel Prize-winner, was being courted by Lawrence—the way NBA teams compete for talent today.

Lawrence invited Feynman to come and see the ground-breaking work being done on the West Coast. As Feynman told the story in an oral history, “I saw Berkeley and he (Lawrence) took me down south to show me Caltech. We went to Laguna Beach, to his beach house, where we went swimming and boating. We had a lot of fun with him and his family.” I was intrigued by this—who knew that Laguna was a gathering place for famous nuclear physicists?

Long story short, Feynman joined Caltech though with the proviso of starting with a sabbatical year (who else gets a job offer that starts with a year of paid vacation) that he could spend in Brazil due to an attraction to samba music, drum playing, and Mardi Gras. Feynman was unconventional, but I made the mistake of telling too many stories of his odd behavior to the Beautiful Wife, who is a dedicated defender of propriety. In Feynman’s defense, I offered the BW one last story.

The great love of Feynman’s life was his high school sweetheart, Arline Greenbaum. His desire to marry her became possible after he completed his PhD and he did, despite the fact that she was dying of tuberculosis, then incurable. After the marriage, and a kiss on her cheek, he returned her to the tuberculosis sanatorium where she lived. This was during WWII and Oppenheimer was recruiting Feynman for the Manhattan Project, located at Los Alamos, NM. Oppenheimer won Feynman over by finding a TB sanatorium for Arline in nearby Albuquerque. Feynman would visit her on weekends, funding her care out of his modest salary. He was with her when she passed in 1945 and in his grief, immersed himself in his work.

Years later, when Feynman was dying, he lifted the sadness of others by pointing out that due to the many funny stories about him, he would never really be gone. He was right. But I remember him best for his devotion to Arline, the love of his life. As I explained to the BW in his defense, there’s meaning in that.


Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]


Places to worship (all on Sunday, unless noted):

Baha’i’s of Laguna Beach—contact [email protected] for events and meetings.

Calvary Chapel Seaside, 21540 Wesley Drive (Lang Park Community Center), 10:30 a.m.

Chabad Jewish Center, 30804 S. Coast Hwy, Fri. 7 p.m., Sat. 10:30 a.m., Sun. 8 a.m.

Church by the Sea, 468 Legion St., 9 & 10:45 a.m.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 682 Park Ave., 10 a.m.

First Church of Christ, Scientist, 635 High Dr., 10 a.m.

ISKCON (Hare Krishna), 285 Legion St., 5 p.m., with 6:45 feast.

Jehovah’s Witnesses, 20912 Laguna Canyon Rd., 1:00 p.m.

Laguna Beach Net-Works, 286 St. Ann’s Dr., 10 a.m.

Laguna Presbyterian, 415 Forest Ave., 8:30 & 10 a.m.

Neighborhood Congregational Church (UCC), 340 St. Ann’s Drive, 10 a.m.

United Methodist Church, 21632 Wesley, 10 a.m.

St. Catherine of Siena (Catholic), 1042 Temple Terrace, 7:30, 9, 11, 1:30 p.m. (Spanish), 5:30 p.m. There are 8 a.m. masses on other days and Saturday 5:30 p.m. vigils.

St. Francis by the Sea (American Catholic), 430 Park, 9:30 a.m.

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, 428 Park Ave., 8:00 & 10:30 a.m.

Unitarian Universalist, 429 Cypress St., 10:30 a.m.



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  1. Those guys are all gone. But there is a new generation of modern physicists embroiled in a controversial interpretation of cosmology, astronomy and the Standard Model. Let’s invite them to Laguna for a bike-ride and conversation about dark matter and beer, or quantum tunneling in test tube fusion over tacos at Adolfos, I’ll treat. Favored physicists are Sabine Hossenfelder, Brian Green, Stefano Atzeni, Ray Kidder or Friedwart Winterberg. Let me know.


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