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The Remarkable Dr. Feynman : Caltech’s Eccentric Richard P. Feynman Is a Nobel Laureate, a Member of the Shuttle Commission, and Arguably the World’s Best Theoretical Physicist

Lawrence Grobel's book, "Conversations With Capote," has recently been published in paperback

One day last February, on a brightly lit stage in a large hall of the State Department in Washington, a distinguished panel of presidential appointees was conducting its investigation into the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. The line of inquiry had turned to the effects that cold weather may have had on the launch. While an expert from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was delivering his lengthy testimony, one of the commission members, Caltech professor and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman, quietly beckoned to a NASA aide and made an odd request: He asked for a glass of ice water and a small vise. With the hearing still in progress, and under the glare of nationwide television coverage, Feynman removed a synthetic rubber O-ring from a model the witness had brought, screwed the ring into the vice and dipped the apparatus into the ice water. He pulled it out, took off the vise, and watched the O-ring bounce back into shape.

He then announced the results of his “little experiment": The O-ring had sprung back less quickly after it had been exposed to the ice water than before--evidence, he suggested, that cold weather may have affected the resilience of the rings, which act as seals between segments of the shuttle’s rocket boosters, preventing hot propellant from being forced through the seams during a launch.

That graphic piece of theater made his point--and it was vintage Feynman. As he later said, NASA had certainly conducted many sophisticated experiments on O-rings and cold weather, but he just had to see for himself.

When William R. Graham, the acting administrator of NASA, was asked by President Reagan to help select prominent Americans to serve on the commission to investigate what went wrong with the Challenger, it didn’t take much inspiration to come up with such names as space pioneers Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, and former Secretary of State William P. Rogers. But the choice of Feynman came as a surprise, at least to those few people who even knew who he was. If Feynman is known at all to mainstream Americans, it is most likely because of his quirky, iconoclastic book of autobiographical stories , “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!"--a book in which Feynman reveals, among other things, that he was rejected by his draft board as mentally incompetent and that he once testified in a court case on behalf of a topless bar that he admitted frequenting “five, six times a week.”

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But perhaps the person most surprised by Feynman’s selection was Feynman himself. “Why me?” he asked when Graham telephoned.

“Because,” Graham said, “I’ve been attending lectures by you for 15 years, first as a student at Caltech, then when I was at Hughes Aircraft and you’d sometimes lecture there. I figured the commission could use a guy like you.”

What Graham no doubt meant was that, while Feynman is considered by many to be the leading theoretical physicist in the world today, he is not your ordinary ivory-tower academic, but a rather extraordinary man with a forceful personality and a penchant for separating fact from fiction, truth from hearsay and the possible from the improbable. Feynman may have been chosen partly because of his Nobel Prize, but he also brings other valuable, practical traits to the job, among them an incisive intellect, a perpetual inquisitiveness, a sense of humor and an appreciation of the absurd. In other words, he would be a good guy to weed out a lot of the nonsense the shuttle commission could be expected to hear over the three months of its inquiry. With Feynman, Graham felt that the scientific community was appropriately represented.

In many ways, however, it was also an odd choice. Feynman has a notorious and highly developed aversion to bureaucracies, formalities, committee thinking and beating around the bush, all of which he could expect to find in the course of the commission’s inquiry. Accepting such an appointment, then, ran deeply against his grain. It would also mean interrupting his teaching and research. Feynman said he wanted to think about it.

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“I’ve always thought that Washington was a can of worms crawling all over each other,” Feynman says, “and I didn’t want to end up in that can. But I felt that maybe this was more serious--it was important for the country to figure out as quickly as possible what went wrong and get this straightened out. So I called up a few friends who advised me that that indeed was right and I shouldn’t play games, I should do it. And finally, my wife said she thought I ought to do it, so I did. I said, ‘OK, I’m going to commit suicide now,’ and I called Graham and said I’d do it.”

Since then, Feynman has established his place on the commission as the panel’s freethinker and a driving creative force. He is not shy about interjecting opinions, sometimes plays for laughs, knows above all how to ask the pointed question that gets to the heart of things. But if he first looked upon the job as suicide, one also gets the impression that he hasn’t seen much to change his mind. “I’m a little disturbed that I felt a sense of duty,” he admits, comparing the commission to his days in Los Alamos, N.M., during World War II, when he worked on the development of the atomic bomb. “From a scientific point of view, the Manhattan Project was not what I would have ordinarily wanted to do; it was engineering more than science. It was very exciting to meet all the great men and smart characters that you read about. It’s a similar response I have to the commission. I wouldn’t want to do this commission aside from the feeling of duty, but once I decide that I’m stuck and I’ve got to do it, then I’ve got to work hard. But if you gave me half a chance, I’d quit. It’s exciting, once you’re stuck in it. It’s like asking somebody who is almost having an automobile accident whether it’s exciting. You’re damn tootin’ it’s fun trying to steer between the cars, isn’t it? Only he’d rather not have to do that.” Feynman laughs, but it’s not a reassuring laugh.

The great mathematician John Von Neumann once told Feynman that you don’t have to be responsible for the world you’re in. Feynman took the advice a step further: “He didn’t go to the step of saying, ‘I’m going to be actively irresponsible.’ I say I’m actively irresponsible. Just like they say that democracy requires eternal vigilance, so irresponsibility requires eternal vigilance. And I failed! I wasn’t careful enough when this presidential commission thing came up. I flunked my own principle. I’ve gotten into a position of responsibility, which is a little unusual for me . . . and not very pleasant.”

Richard Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, N.Y., in 1918 and hasn’t lost his Eastern accent. He sounds like a guy who might have sat high in the bleachers of Ebbetts Field kibitzing at the umpires. But he was really the brainy kid in the basement building radios and inventing Rube Goldberg-like burglar alarms out of batteries, bells and wires. He was the kind of boy who took apart his toy microscope, investigating the natural world through the magnifying lens he carried in his pocket right through his graduate years at Princeton. He has been married three times, has two children and still thinks of his first wife, Arlene, who died of tuberculosis in 1946. “What am I most proud of?” he asks, taking a long time to answer. “That I was able to love my first wife with as deep a love as I was able to.”

Physically, Feynman has that lean and hungry look that Shakespeare said makes such men dangerous; but he’s got a pixieish, almost leprechaun quality as well--there’s the gleam of the jester and troublemaker in his brown eyes. Crow’s-feet appear behind his tortoise-shell glasses, and his high forehead and gray hair, together with his long, thin fingers, give him a look of delicate sensitivity. One of his hobbies is playing the bongos; another is drawing, an avocation he took up, he has said, to somehow try to express the wonder he feels toward the beauty of the universe.

One does not get a sense of cultured manners, of crisp, snobby superiority from the man, though he can, at times, be brusque, intimidating, and downright curmudgeonly. He can cut you down like a samurai if you give him the opening; yet, if he takes a liking to you, he can soften and include you with his laugh. Or his eyes can narrow, demanding of you to please avoid generalities, to please not ask him to speculate about things, because he is a scientist, not a speculator. He likes to know the facts; he thinks about them, he enjoys thinking, the way Dwight Gooden enjoys throwing his fastball. Thinking about things--in his backyard with a pad or in his office staring at the hieroglyphics, equations and statements on his blackboard--is how he has lived his life, and although he has applied much of his thought to the problems of physics, it has never felt like work to him.

To Feynman, the problems in physics are like great puzzles. “Most of the time I don’t solve them. Once in a great while I do. And since the problems I’ve chosen to work on are rather big, hard problems that nobody else has solved, when you solve something nobody else has solved, you’ve got a little pride. You get a kick out of doing it.”

One of the big, hard problems Feynman is credited with solving is the mystery of liquid helium, which behaves like no other liquid. It cannot be stirred continuously, like, say, a can of paint. If you try to stir it, the whirling motion increases in jumps--quantum steps--rather than in a smooth, continuous manner. And if it’s put in an open container, it will climb up the edges and spill out.

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In his book, Feynman describes his uncontainable excitement at making another significant discovery--an equation to describe a particularly thorny problem of beta decay, a phenomenon of subatomic particles. “It was the first time, and the only time, in my career that I knew a law of nature that nobody else knew,” he writes.

Says Edward Stone, chairman of the division of physics, math and astronomy at Caltech: “What’s so unique about Feynman is how he takes elementary physics and looks at it in a totally fresh, innovative way. He’s able to take complex physical phenomena and reduce them to fundamental insights.”

Albert Hibbs, a friend and former student of Feynman’s who is now a senior staff scientist in charge of basic research and development at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains another of Feynman’s breakthroughs. “There are diagrams called ‘Feynman diagrams,’ which he developed to help as an aid in calculating interaction between particles, such as electrons and photons--those are the most basic particles that affect everything we do in our normal life. Their interaction determines everything we see, feel, hear, eat. For years, it was almost impossible to get a good theory about how all this worked on the level where you could actually calculate the outcome of an interaction, and he did this. Such calculations were originally extremely abstract and mysterious, but in Feynman’s diagrams, the visual image precedes the mathematics, they show how you can look, how you can think about, how you can proceed to calculate interactions of this type. It was that kind of thing for which he got a Nobel Prize.”

Feynman has been a physics professor at Caltech since 1950, and his lectures are legendary. Like Linus Pauling when he was teaching chemistry at Caltech, Feynman is an enthusiastic teacher who usually smiles as he explains things. “He has a very visual way of understanding physics,” Hibbs says. When Feynman lectures, he explains the phenomenon first, then he draws pictures and writes the math that follows step by step from the drawing, so it’s all very clear. He is patient and pleasant to work with, although he can be intolerant of people who are “stupid"--that is, not those who cannot understand, but those who will not understand.

Hibbs remembers when he was a student and went to see Feynman about being his thesis adviser. It was 30 years ago. “I went to talk to him,” Hibbs recalls, “and he said, ‘What do you want to do research on?’ I gave him three choices. We discussed them and finally picked one. I talked to some of my friends, and they said, ‘My God, Feynman agreed to be your thesis adviser? How’d you get him to do that?’ I didn’t know, so I asked Feynman later. He said, ‘Well, you came in knowing what you wanted to do. Most students come here and want me to tell them what to do. I never work with people like that.’ ”

Stories about Feynman are legion, but some of the best and most revealing he tells on himself in his autobiography, a series of anecdotes and stories told to his best friend, math teacher Ralph Leighton, and recorded during their bongo-drumming interludes. The book, therefore, is only peripherally about Feynman the physicist. Instead, it’s about a shy man who learns how to pick up women in bars by reverse psychology--piquing their interest by being rude and refusing to buy them drinks. It’s about getting into a fistfight in the men’s room of a bar; learning to crack top-secret safes at Los Alamos as a hobby; becoming a frigideira (frying pan) player in a Brazilian samba band, and making frog noises and jumping backward at a Stockholm students’ ceremony for Nobel Prize winners. It’s a book about an insatiably curious man who is a bit of a rogue, a womanizer, a puzzle-lover, a man who doesn’t suffer fools and who finds amusement in the strangest situations.

“I was telling all these stories to a friend,” Feynman says, laughing. “There was no idea that I was telling them to anybody else, so there was no correcting or worrying about how stupid it looked or how clever or whether I was egotistical or an idiot in the story. It didn’t make any difference. I’d tell it the way it happened to me. Then Ralph got the idea to write them down, so he rearranged them a little bit and kept them sounding like me.”

Originally, Feynman was going to call it “Tales of a Curious Character,” but the publisher, W. W. Norton & Co., thought “I’ve Got an Idea” was better. Feynman got a letter from his publisher telling him how difficult the publishing business was and that after 35 years in the business even he couldn’t predict what would succeed. To which Feynman wrote back: If it’s so difficult, then why not try my title? “I like that stuff,” Feynman says with a laugh. “They’re in the business 35 years, and they can’t predict, therefore, what they say is right. On the contrary!”

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The title they finally settled on was Leighton’s idea. It came from one of the stories, in which grad student Feynman committed a faux pas at a dean’s tea at Princeton. When the dean’s wife asked him if he’d like cream or lemon in his tea, he answered, “I’ll have both, thank you.” The dean’s wife laughed uneasily and said, “Surely, you’re joking , Mr. Feynman.”

The book’s first printing was a lowly 3,000 copies, and its success took everyone by surprise. As it rose to the best-seller lists across the country, it kept going back to the printer. Feynman thinks they finally printed 70,000 copies in hard-cover. And that’s without any self-promotion.

“I said one rule,” he recalls. “I’m not going to go on TV, and I’m not going to sign any books. The publisher said to me, ‘Ha! You’ll see. Crick (Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize winner who investigated the structure of DNA) said the same thing.’ So that, of course, set me up. I couldn’t do it. If he thought that would convince me, it didn’t. I thought, ‘Well, Crick fell, I’m not going to fall.’ ”

Feynman even turned down an invitation to trade quips with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” And when he was in Washington recently, not long after the paperback edition of his book came out, he was surprised to see that he had again made the best-seller list of the Washington Post. “It was number seven,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “Guess what I beat? ‘The Arthur Young Tax Guide.’ And guess what beat me? J.K. Lasser’s ‘Your Income Tax.’ From which I deduce that I’m as popular as the income tax.”

Feynman tells one tale from his recent past with particular relish, but it isn’t included in his book. It’s the story of how Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate, began to lose his mind. And it says something about Feynman’s personality, perhaps, that it took people a few weeks to notice. It begins the day Feynman went to Computerland to pick up his new computer.

He had parked his car up against a concrete parking bumper near the store and jumped out, full of enthusiasm, a 65-year-old looking forward to this new adult toy. In his eagerness, he tripped over the edge of the parking bumper and fell, hitting his head against the wall. Blood began pouring down his face. A man who worked at the store suggested that Feynman go to a doctor, but Feynman was determined to pick up his new computer first. “Look,” the man told him, “it’s 9 in the morning. The store is open until 6. Why don’t you come back after you’ve had that taken care of?”

So Feynman got back into his car and drove to see his doctor. Unfortunately, it was Saturday and his doctor wasn’t in. So Feynman began driving all over Pasadena seeking medical attention while his forehead continued to bleed. Eventually, he decided he should call the paramedics, who came, stuck a bandage on his head and told him to go to the Huntington Memorial Hospital emergency room. There, he was cleaned up and given a few stitches.

Soon afterward, Feynman developed a stiff neck and began to get frequent headaches. He also started to notice a few other things. One day, for example, he backed out of his driveway and drove all the way across the street, almost hitting a car on the other side. “I thought, ‘When you grow old, your driving begins to fail,’ ” he says. Another time, he was driving with a friend and narrowly missed a pedestrian. “Hey!” his friend shouted in terror, “You almost hit that woman!”

“Yes, my driving is deteriorating,” Feynman thought. “I’ll have to stop driving.”

But it wasn’t just his driving that was deteriorating. At lectures, he suddenly found his notes very confusing. During one talk, he was embarrassed by a visiting MIT professor who jumped up and said, “No, no, you’re not explaining it right.” Feynman stood back, “upset because I usually don’t make that kind of mistake,” and let the man take over. His students said nothing about his increasingly odd behavior. Feynman, after all, had always been known as an eccentric. “When the student doesn’t understand the professor,” Feynman says, “usually the student thinks it’s because he’s dopey and he didn’t catch on. This time it was because the professor wasn’t saying anything that was sensible.”

A model he liked to draw also didn’t catch on, although he gave her enough signs. This part of the story he doesn’t remember at all. The model had to tell him about it later.

“This particular model had a small child,” Feynman says, “and it was easier for her if I went to her place to draw, so she didn’t have to get a baby sitter. She reports that I came in, and she asked me where all my materials were--I usually bring a drawing board, paper, pencils. I had forgotten them. So she lent me some paper and went to put her child to sleep. When she came back, I was asleep on the chair. When I awoke, I was acting kind of funny. She said I had a strange personality, that I made remarks that bothered her. But she thought: ‘He’s up to one of his tricks. I’m not going to say anything about it, I’m just going to see what he’s driving at.’ At one point I started to get undressed, and she said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m going to bed.’ She got scared and ran into the bedroom. Only I wasn’t banging on her door. So after a while she comes out, and I’m sitting in the room with my clothes on. Then I walked out the front door. She asked where I was going, and I answered, ‘To the bathroom.’ I was going out the wrong door. But through all this, she didn’t know whether I was fooling around or if it was real.”

She told Feynman that about 40 minutes after he left, he called her to say he had gotten home all right. Since they lived just five blocks apart, she wondered what had taken him so long. He said that he couldn’t find his car, which he had parked right in front of her house. “I must have been wandering around the street with my keys, trying all the car doors,” he says now.

His wife, Gweneth, finally began to suspect that something was amiss, and Feynman agreed to see a doctor, who asked him to walk a straight line. Feynman couldn’t do it. “I thought, what’s so important about walking a straight line? So what?” Then they decided to do a CAT scan, and Feynman could see that the line that should be in the center of his brain was shifted over about a half inch. That’s when they decided he should go to the hospital.

Today, he matter-of-factly explains what happened to him. “When I hit my head,” he says, “it broke a few little vessels, and they were leaking very slowly, bleeding inside, so that they built up pressure inside my head, and it pushed my brain around out of shape, to make room for the blood. It kept increasing, and if we hadn’t stopped it, I would have gone into a coma and died. The cure is simple: You drill a hole and let the goop out, and the brain goes back in place.”

Feynman points to where the two 3/8-inch holes were drilled into the side of his forehead. “I still got dents,” he says. “I’ve got holes in my head.”

His recovery was swift, except that his reading abilities came back slowly, and for a time his eyesight was a little fuzzy.

“As far as I know, everything’s been repaired,” he says, “but how can I tell? I was able to fool myself before. I’m sure I could fool myself again.”

His eyes narrow, and his thin lips press into a quizzical smile. “I found it most curious the way I rationalized all of the weaknesses of my brain. It’s kind of a lesson. I don’t know what it means exactly, but it’s interesting how when you do something foolish, you protect yourself from knowing of your own foolishness.

“I’m a very curious man, and I watch phenomena that happen all the time. You often wonder what it would be like to be going a little crazy. And I had this experience of going crazy, or of something wrong with my mind, and I didn’t notice it. The same mind that is weakening has lost its analytical ability to watch itself. So I was simply rationalizing every failure. I didn’t have the sense to realize what was perfectly obvious: A person doesn’t get old in a week!”

In talking to Feynman, it soon becomes clear that in many ways he does not think along predictable lines, and in fact may even take a certain pleasure in confounding people’s expectations. So it is when he is asked about his Nobel Prize. Feynman’s most recent book, “Q.E.D. The Strange Theory of Light and Matter,” published by Princeton University, is an attempt to explain the principles of quantum electrodynamics, the field in which he shared the Nobel for physics 21 years ago. But if you ask him if he can briefly explain his theory, he’ll quote you what a New York cabbie told him after seeing the distinguished professor questioned on TV earlier the same morning. “I wudda said,” the cabbie advised, “ ‘If I could explain it in a few sentences, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel Prize.’ ”

Although he says that no one believes him, Feynman wishes that he had never gotten the Nobel Prize.

“It’s one of the miseries of my life,” he says. People sometimes approach him, asking him questions he is often at a loss to answer. It’s like going into a bar and seeing Sylvester Stallone and challenging him to a fight. Or running into Eddie Murphy at a carwash and daring him to make you laugh.

“It’s very annoying to have everybody ask you for an opinion, and you’re supposed to be wise all of a sudden, and I know I’m not wise all of a sudden,” he laughs. “I used to be able to go to any old high school and answer questions at the physics clubs. But now, they won’t even ask me. They’re afraid. They wouldn’t ask a Nobel Prize winner just to come to talk to a physics club. And if some student finally gets up enough nerve to do it, what happens is, I say OK. And when I go there, it’s not just the physics club but the whole damn school is there. The principal finds out or the physics teacher finds out what the kid in the physics club has done, and they say, ‘Oh, he’s such an important man, everybody should be interested in this guy.’ It’s kind of out of proportion. I’m not up to it.” Here Feynman pauses, as though he suddenly realizes that there’s nothing he can do about it. “I wouldn’t say that my physics wasn’t up to the prize, but I’m not up to it on a human side, being a Prize Winner and an Important Scientist. I’m not, that’s all. I was a kid fooling around. I was in my pajamas working on the floor with paper and pencil and I cooked something up, OK? Does that make me a great wise schmaltz that everybody should see? It’s a distortion. I’m looked at differently. It’s a pain in the ass! “

That Feynman is looked at differently there is no doubt, although thankfully, he says, some people are able to see him more clearly than others. His students, for one, know him too well to be reverential, he says. “I’m like the guy at the end of ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ They see me from the other side, from the back. So they know.”

His friend, Albert Hibbs, has seen him from another side, too. Hibbs likes to give costume parties. At one April Fool’s party, the theme was famous characters in history--king, queen, knave or fool. Feynman came as Queen Elizabeth. At another party, the theme was Myths and Legends. Feynman came dressed in a long white robe and a long gray beard. Someone approached him, asking if he was Moses. “No,” answered Feynman, “I’m God.”

“Yeah,” Hibbs said. “We’ve known it all along.”


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