My father, a retired physicist who turned 100 on Thursday, has spent much of his century asking and answering questions.
When I accompanied Dad on trips around New Jersey while he gave talks in various Latter-day Saint congregations, he often told the same story, a story whose meaning has become increasingly potent to me over the decades.
He would recount part of the plot from “The Miracle of the Bells,” a 1948 film in which a crowd squeezes into a dilapidated Catholic church for a funeral.
As they pray, they hear a creaking sound and the statue of the Virgin Mary seems to swing on her pedestal to face the coffin. The astonished congregants see it as a direct message from God.
Later, though, the priest goes to the basement and discovers that the ground shifted due to the large number of attendees, causing the pedestal to move.
Dad then would stop and ask his listeners: Should the priest tell the people what caused their miracle?
Robert Chipman Fletcher, my believing-but-science-oriented father, would always answer, “Yes,” (though that’s not what happens in the movie).
Knowing the truth does not harm faith, he told these members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Faith and knowledge go hand in hand. We need not fear facts.
God works through natural means, he believes. Mormonism’s doctrines of eternal progression and continuing revelation are compatible with unfolding human knowledge.
As an MIT-trained physicist from a scientific family, my dad has always pursued truth — his approach as a seeker colored everything in our family.
After marrying the socially gregarious Rosemary Bennett, he found himself surrounded by a lively assortment of children — five girls and three boys — with no pure researchers among us.
And he was baffled that spilled milk always seemed to land in his lap during our raucous dinner table conversations.
Still, he constantly taught us.
The Answer Man cometh
Before Google, there was the Encyclopedia Britannica, which we regularly consulted to settle arguments, discover little-known information, or enlarge understanding.
If you let the tap drip, it will fill the ocean, Mom once exclaimed in her typical hyperbolic manner.
To which Dad replied, “I wonder how many drops there are in an ocean. Kids, let’s figure it out.”
While other fathers merely eyeballed the jar of jelly beans at the annual church-sponsored daddy/daughter party, our dad estimated the number using calculus and the container’s circumference.
He insisted there were no bad questions. I, of course, asked plenty, mostly about religion, and he became my Answer Man.
Is evolution wrong?
No, he said, it could be how God created the world.
Why does the LDS Church exclude Blacks from the priesthood and temple?
It is wrong, not from God and will change (which it did in 1978).
Why doesn’t the Book of Abraham papyri match the Egyptologists’ interpretation?
The images may simply have been a catalyst for revelation.
And on and on.
During my first year at college, I wrote to him these questions — in a single letter, no less: “Do you think obedience is more important than personal conscience? Are people born in poor conditions on Earth because of a poor showing in the existence before? Have you ever wondered whether our Earth, sun and planets are neutrons, protons and electrons in an atom? Do you know anything about existentialism, and, if so, what do you think of it?”
For Dad, though, faith demands commitment and integrity.
He embraces the scriptural guidance that “whatsoever thing is good is just and true” and has sought to build his life around goodness, justice and truth.
He never said no to an assignment and never made a halfhearted effort — whether it was putting in an electrical socket in our Short Hills Ward meetinghouse, dressing up like Robert Redford for a talent show, or serving as a Mormon bishop, while facing down kidney cancer.
That determination and drive were evident, especially on the tennis court — where he developed a killer serve and a competitive edge — which he first stepped on in his 40s and didn’t step off of until his 90s.
In 1986, Dad retired at age 65 from Bell Laboratories, where he, like his father before him, had worked for his entire career. But he was hardly ready to settle into endless recreation.
His classroom: the world
He moved to Boston, took another job and pressed on with his scientific labors.
As he neared 70, he no longer had full-time obligations, and I was working for a magazine in New York called Books & Religion.
When several works on the nature of the universe and religion crossed my desk, I knew the perfect reviewer: Dad.
So I am at least partially responsible for his obsession with cosmology that gripped him for the next decade. He became convinced — after working out some math and physics formulas — that the speed of light is variable at great distances.
Just one problem: Being retired while taking on Einstein.
Dad did all he could to get professors to discuss his work and respected science journals to publish it, hoping that others would engage with him or tell him what was wrong with his theory. Eventually, he published his conclusions in an online physics journal so that future scientists might recognize his contribution. Or build on his ideas.
Since moving with Mom in 2000 to Salt Lake City (she died in 2009), Dad has continued to take classes at the University of Utah on topics from Russian history to art to astronomy and everything in between.
Being born in 1921 means he’s lived through the Great Depression, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassination, men walking on the moon, the civil rights movement, Watergate, 9/11 and Donald Trump — and he has opinions about all of them.
His biggest complaint about the pandemic was that his U. class — European history since 1300 — got canceled. He read the text, he said, but it wasn’t the same.
He continues to read a daily paper, as well as science magazines, biographies, histories and scriptures.
His wonder at the world has not dissipated with age.
Dad watched the 2017 solar eclipse from his front porch and remarked with unrestrained glee: “The real miracle is that science could predict it with down-to-the-second accuracy.”
Then my physicist father proclaimed: “Physics is true!”
When his two younger brothers — ages 96 and 94 — died a couple of years ago, I asked Dad if he was eager to join them.
Not yet, he said, there is still too much to learn.