ONE SUNDAY AFTERNOON
It was a summer afternoon, and I was about twelve years old—maybe thirteen. I went to my room for the prescribed intellectual activity, and started thinking very seriously indeed. “What do I want to do with my life?” I thought about getting rich. Is this what I wanted? No. What about being famous? No. Staying on the farm? No. Stick with music? Maybe. No, I finally decided that what I wanted was very simple—it was to understand everything! Now, how was I to go about doing that?
I started by making lists of things that I must do. One list concerned my being a man. If I were to become a man, then I must experience all those activities that men should have experienced. So that list included fathering a child, seeing a baby born; seeing a person die; since every person who died needed to be buried, then I should help to bury someone. Should I add war to the list? Probably. But whatever, I needed to be a responsible person, and to leave the world a better place than when I arrived. I could do this much easier if I knew all kinds of things.
How about all of those events of nature about which I was fascinated? Tornados, hurricanes and typhoons, earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, glaciers, floods—each one of these I must understand. I’m going to have to be very alert for I will have to contrive to be present at the right place and time. This list was truly a fun list to make.
Where on the earth do I need to go in order to learn? On this list I had the northern-most point of North America, the southernmost point of South America. The pyramids were there, as was the monument on the equator that was pictured in my 5th grade geography book. I should visit the world’s great rivers; the Amazon and the Nile, the Rhine and the Yukon; the Yangtze and the Ganges. Great mountain ranges were included—the Alps, the Andes, and the Himalayas. I’d already seen the Rockies, and the Mississippi, the Ohio, and the Colorado, so I did not need to list them.
My principal list was a short, scientific one. My long-term interest in where the sun gets its energy meant that astronomy and physics were going to be subjects that I was going to have to study. That meant college, and hard work. Understanding the universe was on my list.
As I look back, how have I done? By a series of wonderfully improbable bits of luck, I’ve been in a big earthquake (California, 1952, the Tehachapi), seen volcanoes erupt on a number of occasions, measured the height of erupting fountains of lava, have experienced hurricanes in Florida and typhoons in the Marianna Islands, once saw five tornados at the same time right at home, have seen the northern and southern points of the Americas (twice!) and was present for a number of first rate tidal waves or tsunamis in the Marshall Islands—each one of them man-made! Who could have imagined? I’ve seen babies born, and people die, and have helped with the burials. Glaciers and floods I’ve attended. The Nile is bigger than I imagined, though incredibly smaller than the Amazon, and I was once marooned on a sandbar in the Yukon! I’m perhaps a real authority on the Ninnescah, our own creek. I’ve seen bodies floating down the Yangtze, and was even more amazed by the step pyramid than by the more famous ones. The monument on the equator was just like it was pictured, and the Alps and the Andes were more than worth the effort to get there. My two visits to Antarctica were made despite the fact that Antarctica was NOT on my list, for the chance of going there when I made my list was much too remote, like going to the moon. Those two trips enable me to brag that I’ve been to each continent at least twice.
The really “big dream” realization has been my career at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, for there I participated in, and once in a while was a principal in, nuclear explosions. I now comprehend that nuclear explosions are responsible for causing everything that shines in the entire universe. I have learned more about such things than I ever imagined on one particular Sunday afternoon in the mid-thirties.
Deciding that I wanted to know everything was a bit much, so I am forced to add that when I ask the right questions, I understand nothing.