by Will Schreiber

"It's a terrible thing that we made"

Richard Feynman's wife died on June 16, 1945.

He got the call saying her condition was deteriorating, borrowed a car to drive the 100 miles from Los Alamos back to Albuquerque, and made it to her bedside. Barely.

After she passed, he went for a walk near the hospital. He was surprised that he wasn't more upset. Her seven-year battle with tuberculosis had probably softened the blow.

Exactly one month later, on July 16, 1945, Feynman arrived back in Los Alamos for Trinity, the first test of the atomic bomb. Feynman claims he was the only one to actually see the explosion since everybody was wearing extremely dark - too dark - sunglasses. He knew glass blocked ultraviolet light, which is what would actually damage the eye, so he took off the sunglasses, opened a car door, and watched through the car's glass pane from twenty miles away.


It was so bright that he fell to the ground. At first he saw white splatches of light as he flashed his eyelids open and closed. Then he stood up to see the rising fireball plume.

A minute and a half later the sound wave came roaring by. Then came the heat. Then came the celebrations.

Everybody was thrilled. They'd done it. They had engineered an atomic-level chain reaction. There were a lot of parties amid a flurry of excitement. For his part, he played drums in the back of a Jeep.

One man, Bob Wilson, wasn't celebrating. It's a terrible thing that we made, Bob said.

In another month, victory over Japan was declared. In two more months, Feynman left the desert to start teaching at Cornell.

On his way to Ithaca, he stopped in New York City and went for another walk, this time up and down the city streets. First 10 blocks, then 20, then 30, then finally stopping for dinner.

As he thought about how far he was from 34th Street, and how everything in between him and 34th would be reduced to ash by an atomic bomb, he had a terrible feeling of hopelessness.

Why was anybody doing anything? Why are people building bridges? Why are they building buildings? Why are people paving streets and piling into the Subway and riding up and down 5th Avenue? Don't they understand? Don't they get it?

Don't they see there is no point?

I'm not sure where Feynman walked exactly. But I made a similar walk last winter. I'd just spent a few hours asking GPT-3 for help with some complicated multi-JOIN SQL queries, which it studiously and earnestly and instantly gave back to me. And then OpenAI's API went down. I felt stranded. Agitated. How am I going to finish this project without help?!

So I put on my coat and left the office. I made my way across Union Square, down 15th, past all the tourists at Chelsea Market and into the warm and inviting doors of the Bus Stop Cafe.

I sat alone in a booth and ordered mint tea.

There were a lot of regulars around me, everybody laughing with the staff. Couples kept streaming down Hudson past my window.

Don't they get it? I thought. What's the point? Don't they understand?

My job writing software is like making kerosene lamps in the same year Edison announced his lightbulb. It's too late, I think. Human achievement is over.

Feynman wrote his autobiography 40 years after his lonely dinner in New York. "Fortunately, it's been useless for almost forty years now, hasn't it?" He remarked. "So I've been wrong about it being useless making bridges and I'm glad those other people had the sense to go ahead."

And go ahead we must - ahead with building bridges. And kerosene lamps. And silly little blog posts.

Feynman tells this story in basically the same order - but with much better detail and many other funny tidbits - in his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman.