Excerpt from Tuva or Bust!
Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman’s Last Journey
by Ralph Leighton
The plates were being cleared from the table, and had just begun finishing off the salad part of what had become a weekly ritual at the Feynmans’. Richard, always at the north end of the grand table, traded witticisms with son Carl, who shared the lengthy east side of the table with the guest. To the south sat Gweneth, making sure the food moved smoothly around the table, and daughter Michelle occupied the west.
It was late in the summer of 1977. Michelle was about to enter the second grade at a local elementary school; Carl was ready to begin his junior year at the high school in Pasadena where I would be teaching mathematics and coaching water polo.
“Math is okay,” I said, “but what I really like is geography. If I had a geography class I would bring in my shortwave radio and tune in the BBC or Radio Nederland. We’d play geography games like I did with my brother: he and I would go through every independent country of the world. You know, the last letter of Liechtenstein determines the first letter of the next country-Nepal, for example.”
“Or Nigeria, Niger, or Nicaragua,” said Carl, with a hint of his mother’s Yorkshire accent.
“And after exhausting the independent countries,” I continued, “we would move on to provinces. Did you know there’s a province called ‘Amazonas’ in three different countries?”
“Let’s see,” said Carl. “How about Brazil, Colombia, and Peru?”
“Not bad,” I replied. “The third country is Venezuela, although Peru does have more of the Amazon in it than Venezuela does.”
“So you think you know every country in the world?” interjected Richard in a familiar, mischievous voice that usually signaled impending doom for its target.
“Uh, sure,” I said, taking another bite of salad, preparing myself for the embarrassment that was sure to follow.
“Okay, then what ever happened to Tannu Tuva?”
“Tannu what?” I said. “I never heard of it.”
“When I was a kid,” Richard continued, “I used to collect stamps. There were some wonderful triangular and diamond-shaped stamps that came from a place called ‘Tannu Tuva.’ ”
I became suspicious. My brother Alan, a stamp collector, had made a fool out of me dozens of times when we played “Islands of the World.” He would rattle off some exotic sounding name like “Aitutaki,” and when I challenged him on it he would pull out his stamp catalog and show me a few stamps from the place. So I stopped challenging him, and he grew bolder and bolder, winning game after game. Finally I caught him on “Aknaki,” supposedly part of a tiny atoll in the South Pacific, after dimly recalling that the week before he had claimed it was a river in Mauritania. So I straightened up in my chair a bit and said, “Sir, there is no such country.’
“Sure there is,” said Richard. “In the 1930s it was a purple splotch on the map near Outer Mongolia, and I’ve never heard anything about it ever since.”
Had I stopped and thought a moment, I would have realized that Richard’s favorite trick was to say something unbelievable that turns out to be true. Instead, I tightened the noose that had just been placed around my neck: “The only countries near Outer Mongolia are China and the Soviet Union, I said, boldly. “I can show you on the map.”
I grabbed my last bite of salad as we all got up from the table and proceeded into the living room to Richard’s favorite book, the Encyclopedia Britannica. In the last volume there was an atlas. We opened it to a map of Asia.
“See?” I said. “There’s nothing here but the USSR, Mongolia, and China. This ‘Tannu Tuva’ must have been somewhere else.”
“Oh, look!” said Carl. “Tuvinskaya ASSR. It’s bordered on the south by the Tannu-Ola Mountains.”
Sure enough, occupying a notch northwest of Mongolia was a territory that could well once have had the name Tannu Tuva. I thought, I’ve been had by a stamp collector again!
“Look at this,” remarked Richard. “The capital is spelled K-Y-Z-Y-L.”
“That’s crazy,” I said. “There’s not a legitimate vowel anywhere!”
“We must go there, said Gweneth.
“Yeah!” exclaimed Richard. “A place that’s spelled K-Y-Z-Y-L has just got to be interesting!”
Richard and I grinned at each other and shook hands.
Extract from Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman’s Last Journey. By W.W.
Norton. Copyright Ralph Leighton 1991-2000.
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