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Herman Wouk on his buddy Feynman and 'Science and Religion'

April 25, 2010 |  6:31 pm


In the 1970s, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the name Herman Wouk. Already popular for such novels as “The Caine Mutiny” and “Marjorie Morningstar,” Wouk’s two novelizations of World War II -- “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” -- seemed to single-handedly launch the television miniseries.

Fame, in Wouk’s case, was not fleeting. He spoke Sunday afternoon to a full house at UCLA’s Broad Art Center about his new book, “The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion,” an examination of the splits and overlaps between faith and fact.

Befitting his early history as a radio gag writer, Wouk -- a month shy of this 95th birthday -- traded one-liners and wry observations with L.A. Times staff writer Tim Rutten while recalling his friendship with legendary physicist Richard Feynman and how it influenced his own view of faith.

In fact, the title of the new book, he said, was drawn from a comment the Nobel Prize-winning CalTech physicist made to him as he was researching “The Winds of War.” Feynman asked Wouk if he knew calculus. Wouk said he did not. Feynman told him he needed to learn it because "that’s the language God talks."

Calculus, then, became the recurring punch line of the session. But the most salient point may have been from another Feynman line, when he was asked by a television reporter to reconcile faith with a tragic world -- how do you answer the "where’s God" question in the face of atrocities like the Holocaust?

Feynman responded he doubted that ”this fantastically marvelous universe” with its varieties of animals and planets and ”all these atoms with all their motions ... could merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil, which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”

And that, Wouk said from a stage that seemed to dwarf him, got at the heart of his own faith.

“I’d been thinking about the science and religion conflict -- I never could find away to start to truly work on it,” Wouk said. “It’s too broad. But when I read that [from Feynman], I said, the stage is too big for the drama? That I think I can get down to. The stage and the drama. And that’s what the book is.”

-- Scott Martelle

Photo: Herman Wouk, left, talking with L.A. Times staff writer Tim Rutten. Credit: Scott Martelle