A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece for a BBC website to coincide with a Radio 4 documentary about Richard Feynman. Here is a rewritten, considerably longer version with a variety of Feynman film links. I can promise nothing new to the Feynman enthusiast. This is a biased and simple introduction.
“if you are going to be a physicist, you will have a lot to study: two hundred years of the most rapidly developing field of knowledge that there is” Richard Feynman
When I was a child I desperately wanted to be a scientist, but then it something went wrong. That something was science education.
Unfortunately, during the early years of my secondary school education, science became joyless succession of burning peanuts on bunsen burners at best.
It was a subject that seemed disjointed from the world even though it is the method that attempts to explain the world and the universe.
If only it were possible to place an automaton Richard Feynman in every school.
Children would leave each day wide-eyed with astonishment and eager to run home to look down their microscopes or mull over the movement of a bee in a flower border.
(the truth is I would never have made a scientist, I just don’t have the patience)
Richard Feynman did not understand how scientific knowledge could make anything dull.
In the documentary The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he related an argument with an artist who declared that scientists removed the beauty of flowers and made them seem dull. Feynman vehemently disagreed.
“A knowledge of science only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts”
Later his artist friend, Jirayr Zorthian, spoke of his regret about using a flower as an example. He said he wished his example had been a bare-breasted woman. “are you going to look at these breasts and and start analyzing how beautifully they’re formed scientifically?…or are you going to want to just spontaneously go over there and bury your face between them”. For the sake of the opening of Christopher Sykes’s documentary, I am relieved Zorthian used the flower.
The documentary is 50 minutes of Richard Feynman sitting in an armchair and talking about his relationship with science. Feynman’s lecturing was described by the New York Times as “the impossible combination of theoretical physicist and circus barker, all body motion and sound effects”. Reading and watching his work, there is a philosophy of life, thought he may not have liked that conclusion, as he was not too keen on philosophy and enjoyed ridiculing it. When trying to broaden his knowledge at Princeton, he attended a philosophy lecture, hoping to participate only as a spectator. The lecturer recognised him and asked if an electron was an essential object. Feynman asked if a brick was an essential object. a debate broke out as to whether it was or it wasn’t. He left the lecture astonished that they had been talking of essential objects for some months, but still didn’t know what one was. He felt philosophers used language in “funny ways”.
“I do not feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose – which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It does not frighten me.”
Feynman removes the viewer’s fear of their own inquisitiveness.
Richard Feynman may have been engaged in the great questions of quantum mechanics, but that did not stop him wanting to know the answer to what some may think of as more trivial matters from an early age.
In his memoirs, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, Feynman explains how he felt on discovering Santa Claus was not real.
“I was not upset. I was relieved that there was a much simpler phenomenon to explain how so many children got presents the same night!”
The title What Do You Care What Other People Think? comes from a beautifully told story of Feynman’s first wife who died of tuberculosis. It is a piece I have read many times and remains as affecting on each reading. It also contains the joyous insult, “pecans to you”.
Later, at university, his roommate returned home one day to find him leaning out of a window on a freezing winter’s day, stirring something in a bowl.
Feynman had suddenly become intrigued by a problem – could jelly set at freezing temperatures if constantly stirred?
It is incidents like this that prompted physicist Freeman Dyson to consider him “half genius, half buffoon”. He would later correct this to “all genius, all buffoon”.
But Feynman was no ordinary genius, as explained in the film of the same name.
An ordinary genius is someone like you or me, just many times better. As the Nobel Laureate physicist Hans Bethe remarked: “Feynman was a magician. With a magician, you just do not know how he does it.”
Despite the awe that his students and fellow scientists felt for him, Feynman declared: “I have limited intelligence and I use it in a particular direction.”
With this “limited intelligence”, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga in 1965 for their work on quantum electrodynamics, the field of science which describes how light and matter interact. As a man not keen on accolades and epaulettes, Feynman was not overjoyed at receiving the Nobel Prize. An anecdote, which i have seen described in a variety of ways, tells of Feynman having to go on a TV show to explain in three minutes why he won the Nobel prize. after the show he told a taxi driver that he was unable to do that. The taxi driver replied, “if you could have explained it in three minutes, you wouldn’t have won the Nobel prize”.
It was his father, a uniform salesman, who had instilled in him not only a thirst for scientific knowledge but also a distrust of titles and baubles. He was eager to remind people that just because someone held a position of authority, this was no signifier that they must be correct.
As Richard Feynman’s father taught him the scientific method, it was his mother whom he thanked for the other part of his personality that made him such an irresistible character.
“She had a wonderful sense of humour. I learned from her that the highest forms of understanding we can achieve are laughter and human compassion.”
Richard Feynman died of cancer in 1988, aged 69, but his zest for science lives on his many published works, predominantly transcribed from his lectures, which remain engrossing introductions to physics, and his conversations with Ralph Leighton. When he was gravely ill with cancer, he asked his wife, Gweneth, and Sister, Joan, if he could have their permission to die. After they gave him permission to die, Joan said that he apologised to his cancer specialist for dying.
All the way up to his death, he apparently attempted to convey to those around him what was going on, attempting to impart experience to the end. According to Joan, his final words were “dying is boring”. (Wikipedia has it as “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring”)
Wherever I am travelling and whatever books I am reading, my bag always contains a Feynman book.
As Christopher Sykes said: “He made me wish I had been a scientist.” It is a sensation I know all non-scientists feel when experiencing his work.
It may be too late for some of us to change course and take up a job in quantum mechanics. But it is not too late to become infected by the wonder and mystery of the Universe around us.
Or even just lean out of the window with a bowl of jelly and a hooded anorak as the snow falls.
oh and why is this called Feynman wants his orange juice, well..
I won’t write a long book list, all his work is worth reading from lectures to letters, though Pleasure of Finding Things Out, a collection of shorter works is a good starting point.
also, I would recommend taking a look at the work of Natalie Kay Thatcher
Feynman was also one of the major inspirations for my current tour which comes to end over the autumn in places like Swindon, Cardiff, Oxford and Lincoln (hey, i am allowed to do a plug in my own blog – details at www.robinince.com