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My family history: Being brought up the German way

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My family history: Our sense of humor
Joan Feynman Scientist
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It was a custom we went every Sunday, I guess or Saturday once week, we went to my grandmother's, my father's mother's house for dinner. And my father had another brother who was somewhat stupid and three sisters and their spouses and so on. And my grandmother used to make a special dish for each of her sons or sons-in-law, never for the daughters-in-law, just for the sons and sons-in-law. And then she would sit at the bottom of the table with my father at the top because he was the oldest male. And she would sit there like this and say, 'It isn't as good as usual, it isn't as good as usual' and it never was as good as usual.

And she had tea which she served in the Russian fashion in a glass with a spoon. And somehow you were supposed to drink it, but I couldn't. You weren't supposed to take the spoon out. But I never could get it. I still don't get how you do it.

My father sat at the head of the table and my mother sat at the other side. I sat on one side and Richard when he was at home, on the other side. And we didn't have servants at that time so my mother would run with the food. We just talked usually. We didn't talk about politics at the table. We tried to keep it cheerful. It was in fact one of the dinners at that era that my mother and brother made me laugh so hard, I fell on the floor. That wasn't fair.

There was one thing about the systems. If you could make somebody laugh very hard so they were very uncomfortable, that's what you were allowed to do. I had a cousin who came to us very often to eat, a very good dear cousin, and she would... Richard would stare at her without turning his eyes and stare at her, and stare at her. And all the while she just starts giggling and giggling harder and giggling harder until she had to leave the table. So we had ways to make people uncomfortable by making them laugh.

My mother... My mother always insisted that she had a little door in her head. And as soon as a number was mentioned, the door slammed, and she did not want to know what we were talking about so she never came into the mathematical games. But she was a very jolly woman, funny when she tried to be. I remember one night my brother, my father, my mother and I were sitting at the table and I must have been about 12. And my mother and my brother had a dreadfully difficult sense of humor to deal with, so they were going back and forth going back and forth. And my father and I were miserable. We were laughing so hard. He said, 'We can't eat, we can't eat'. And they just kept going till I fell on the floor that they stopped, very nice of them.

The kind of sense of humor was very carefully... it never was...  you never told a story which made fun of anybody. You never told a story how stupid somebody was. The stories were all just funny things that happened, sort of like are happening now. I haven't told you about my brother... anything, except that you can laugh at without hurting anybody's feelings, without being mean in any way. And that was the rule. It's been through my life. I never tell stories about damn fools. It's too easy. No, it isn't. That is too easy. It's not funny for the person that you're talking about. So it is not funny. So that's the rule. And my whole family does it that way, which makes it much easier to laugh. You're not hurting anybody.

Joan Feynman (b. 1927) is an American astrophysicist. She has made important contributions to the study of solar wind particles and fields, sun-Earth relations and magnetospheric physics. In particular, Feynman is known for developing an understanding of the origin of auroras. During her career, Feynman was an author or co-author of more than 100 scientific publications. She also edited three scientific books. In 2002, she was awarded NASA's distinguished Exceptional Achievement Medal.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes Alexander Ruzmaikin

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: laughter, mathematics, humor, family

Duration: 7 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: April 2019

Date story went live: 05 November 2019