Feynman Quote Demystification
January 6, 2007 4:48 AM   Subscribe

There's this rather unspecific Feynman story that I keep encountering. Its formulation as found on the Internets goes "One of the most impressive discoveries was the origin of the energy of the stars, that makes them continue to burn. One of the men who discovered this was out with his girl friend the night after he realized that nuclear reactions must be going on in the stars in order to make them shine. She said "Look at how pretty the stars shine!" He said, "Yes, and right now I am the only man in the world who knows why they shine." She merely laughed at him. She was not impressed with being out with the only man who, at that moment, knew why stars shine. Well, it is sad to be alone, but that is the way it is in this world." Does anyone know who he is talking about (Eddington? Perrin? Bethe?) and if there's any truth to the story?
posted by themel to Science & Nature (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Fritz Houtermans. Googling for Houtermans girlfriend produces a few references.
posted by blue mustard at 5:21 AM on January 6, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, Houtermans looks very plausible.
posted by themel at 6:34 AM on January 6, 2007

Its probably apocryphal. That anecdote makes Houterman's girlfriend sound like some dumb girl when in fact his girlfriend, and later wife, was the physicist Charlotte Riefenstahl.
posted by vacapinta at 8:40 AM on January 6, 2007

It doesn't make her sound dumb to me. It sounds like she's got other things on her mind, and George Costanza Houtermans blows his chance once again.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:05 AM on January 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

I heard this story about Maxwell, of all things.
posted by adipocere at 9:18 AM on January 6, 2007

This "debunking" of why its not Eddington is really fun:

Perhaps the first person to realize that nuclear fusion was the key to what makes the sun go on shining was Eddington. Certainly he was one of the first persons to develop the idea systematically, and equally certainly he believed that he was the first to think of it. There is a story of Eddington sitting out one balmy evening with a girlfriend. She said, "Aren't the stars pretty?" And he said, "Yes, and I'm the only person in the world who knows what makes them shine."

It's a nice story, but it's none too likely. Eddington was a lifelong bachelor, a Quaker, and a workaholic, too busy to have much time for idle philandering.

posted by vacapinta at 9:27 AM on January 6, 2007

Although I can't remember exactly who it was attributed to, Eddington or Houtermans, this story was definitely mentioned in Simon Singh's book Big Bang (which is a worthwhile light read, if you're interested at all in cosmology, astronomy, or the history of science). I'd look through it to see who he attributes it to, but I borrowed it from the library and don't have it available. I think it was in reference to Eddington, but he said it was apocryphal.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:47 PM on January 6, 2007

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