The Cult of Richard Feynman
All these years gone, and Richard Feynman is still a force. dead more than a dozen years, but an icon nonetheless.
Wander through the Caltech bookstore, and there he is, enshrined in a floor-to-ceiling photograph that takes up much of a wall. The only other prominent images in the store are those of Albert Einstein, and those are just posters.
On the shelves where books by Caltech authors are on display, there is an entire Feynman section, with its array of biographies and memoirs, CDs and videotapes. One book is devoted, of all things, to the renowned physicist’s amateur sketch work. Farther down the shelf is an item grandly titled “Feynman’s Lost Lecture,” as if anything bearing his name is found treasure. A CD dubbed “Safecracker Suite” begins with Feynman banging his beloved bongo drums, and segues into stories of his antics while working on the first atomic bomb.
His presence is felt in other places as well. Take, for instance, the hills of Altadena, where artist Jirayr Zorthian has built the “Richard Feynman Wall of Passion” that mirthfully celebrates Feynman’s love of earthly delights (sex, not science).
Feynman is there in the office of Helen Tuck, his secretary of many years, who points to her keepsake on the shelf--a framed sheet of paper on which Feynman doodled sketches and incomprehensible (to mere mortals, at least) equations.
He’s there with Ralph Leighton, who came to know the physicist as they spent time drumming together. Then Leighton, son of Caltech professor Robert B. Leighton, devoted a large part of his life to burnishing the Feynman mystique through books and a Web site (www.scs-intl.com/online). Outside these circles of academia and friends, most Americans might best know Feynman for a moment in 1986, when he stood before television lights and dramatically demonstrated what caused the Challenger space shuttle disaster. His props were a piece of rubber, a glass of ice water and a small clamp, but the simple exercise was a turning point for the investigation into the shuttle explosion.
Such is the legacy of Feynman, Nobel laureate and subject of a play starring Alan Alda now running in New York. In 1999, Physics World polled scientists, asking them to rank the greatest physicists who ever lived. Feynman came in seventh, behind Galileo. In his life he put together the puzzle of quantum electrodynamics, earning him the physics Nobel in 1965. And it is said in the scientific community that he could have won as many as three other Nobels, so wide were his interests and so acute was his intellect.
He was, to many in the lofty world of theoretical physics, a kind of magician who could bore a hole to the heart of a knotty problem with an ease that left others in awe. He could envision how something worked where others could not. Yet Feynman’s peculiar immortality springs from more than his science, perhaps even aside from it. After all, the Nobel roster lists hundreds of men of astounding intellect. But could any of them match Feynman’s vaunted extracurricular activities? Or the relentless cultivation of image, which he preferred as that of a ladies man and ne’er-do-well?
This was a man who pondered and polished his lines until they gleamed, then dealt them out as offhand remarks. A man who, when asked in his waning months if he wished to read his prepared obituary, replied: “I have decided it is not a very good idea for a man to read it ahead of time; it takes the element of surprise out of it.”
Caltech colleague Kip Thorne says it was that combination of fun and intellect that made Feynman perhaps the most magnetic physicist of the 20th century: “The people I know admired his breadth of interest, his curiosity and his love of life. Most of us tend to have much narrower lives than he, and many of us regret at times that we don’t have the breadth of experiences and relationships as he did.”
Caltech Vice-Provost David Goodstein recalls that in 1966, as he was finishing his graduate work at the University of Washington in Seattle, Goodstein was invited to deliver a lecture at Caltech as a prelude to his being hired there. He was whisked from the airport to a lunch--at Feynman’s favorite topless bar, where he sometimes ate four or five times a week. Sitting there amid the strippers and across from the storied physicist, Goodstein could think of only one thing: “No one in Seattle is going to believe this.”
It was a reaction his host undoubtedly anticipated. As the noted physicist Murray Gell-Mann gently complained after his former colleague’s death, Feynman “surrounded himself in a cloud of myth, and he spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself.”
Feynman relished performing parlor tricks at parties, rubber-legging it on the dance floor, and persuading women to disrobe so that he could sketch them. At various periods in his life, he made the seduction of women his sport of choice and proudly boasted in one of his books that he had a knack for picking up Las Vegas showgirls. And more than once Tuck had to extricate him from a relationship--”dump some of them,” as the secretary laughingly puts it. His shenanigans once caused the distinguished British writer C.P. Snow to describe Feynman “as though Groucho Marx was suddenly standing in for a great scientist.”
Or as his succinct sister, Joan, says: “If you wanted to have a good party, you had Richard there.”
Richard Feynman was born on May 11, 1918, to Melville and Lucille Feynman of Far Rockaway, N.Y. Melville was a sales manager for a uniform manufacturer, and he had more than a passing interest in science and math. Lucille, a housewife, was a storyteller, a talent she passed along to her children.
The scenes from the early years are of a boy genius making radios in his upstairs bedroom, mixing chemicals to see what would happen, poring over the family encyclopedia, being a math whiz who taught himself calculus--all in the setting of a beach community in the shadow of New York City.
At MIT and Princeton, Feynman made a name as a budding physics and math wonder, even as he worked hard to improve his social skills. It was not enough for Feynman to be singled out as a prodigy in the tight-knit physics community. He wanted to be more than the stereotypical nerd with a plastic pocket protector. He also wanted to learn to dance, and to spin a good yarn in his hard-edged New York accent.
One of the more famous stories Feynman told on himself--and there were many--was one that illustrated how little he knew about matters of culture. At a Princeton social gathering, the hostess asked him if he wanted “cream or lemon” with his tea.
“I’ll have both, thank you,” he replied.
“Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman,” said the hostess in mock horror, delighted to have discovered such a rube.
The phrase went on to become the title of Feynman’s first collection of autobiographical stories, which made the New York Times bestseller list. The polished and urbane Gell-Mann derisively described it as “Dick’s Joke Book.” But it was hailed in other quarters as a candid and understandable look into a scientist’s life.
Among the stories Feynman told were of building the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, N.M., and of his exploits at cracking safes containing the nation’s nuclear secrets--then leaving taunting notes that infuriated military higher-ups. Feynman’s arrival at Los Alamos in early 1943 was part of Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer’s overall plan to build The Bomb. He knew he needed the brash young Princeton physicist on his team.
Robert Christy, another physicist on the project and now a professor emeritus at Caltech, recalls that at Los Alamos, Feynman’s stature was overshadowed by Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, the latter already being a Nobel winner and designer of the first nuclear reactor. Feynman “was recognized as a brilliant young physicist, no question,” Christy says. “But at the time, he had not done all the things for which he would become world famous. He had a great future, but it was still in the future.”
In his book, Feynman is almost flippant about this period, with only scant mention of his first wife, Arline, who was dying of tuberculosis in an Albuquerque sanitarium while he was working on the bomb. It took James Gleick’s elegant biography “Genius” to put that time in perspective--writing about Feynman’s weekly trips to visit Arline, the tenderness of their relationship and those last anguished hours as her life faded away.
Two years later, while he was teaching at Cornell, Feynman wrote a letter to his dead wife: “I adore you sweetheart. I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead--but I still want to comfort and take care of you--and I want you to love me and take care of me.” As Gleick noted: “That he had written a letter to the woman he loved, two years after her death, could never be a part of the iconography of Feynman, the collection of images and stories that were already beginning to follow him about. The letter went into an envelope, the envelope into a box. It was not read again until after his death.”
The Feynman book was more lighthearted than thoughtful, but there was at least one glimpse of a more serious side--a couple of paragraphs reflecting on the atomic bomb. He was sitting in a New York restaurant, wondering to himself what the radius of the Hiroshima bomb might be if it were overlaid on America’s largest city. “And I would go along and see people building a bridge, or they’d be making a new road, and I thought they’re crazy , they just don’t understand, they don’t understand. Why are they making new things? It’s so useless.” In 1946, with the Manhattan Project disbanding, Feynman was invited to become an associate professor of theoretical physics at Cornell. It was there that he began his study of quantum electrodynamics, which would eventually earn him the Nobel.
The field itself is the study of the interaction of subatomic particles. The problem for scientists was the increasing difficulty of using existing formulas to explain, predict or quantify what was being observed in the laboratory. Enter Feynman, who developed a series of particle interaction diagrams that made it all understandable. The “Feynman diagrams” made scientific calculations and predictions much more accurate.
The breakthrough also bore the Feynman trademark of tackling a problem just to see if he could do it. The work that won him the Nobel, for instance, began when he tried to figure out the physics of a wobbling plate that caught his attention in a Cornell cafeteria. “There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was,” he later wrote. “The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.”
At another point, Feynman took up biology long enough to make a small but significant contribution to the study of DNA. It might have been a career high for a lesser scientist, but for Feynman, it was just another riddle to be solved.
After three years at Cornell, Feynman grew tired of the isolated atmosphere of Ithaca, N.Y., where he had never really put down roots. Other schools were recruiting him, and after a year’s sabbatical in Brazil, he brought his act to Caltech in 1951.
One of the first things Feynman did upon his arrival in Pasadena was marry a woman he had dated at Cornell. The proposal was made to Mary Louise Bell by mail while Feynman was in Brazil. The relationship soon soured, though it would be four years before the couple divorced. The divorce agreement required that Feynman confess to “extreme cruelty,” which, according to her testimony, included his practice of working calculus problems before getting out of bed in the morning.
At Caltech, his work in the fields of superfluidity and radioactivity burnished his already bright star. And he was joined by Gell-Mann, one of the other great theoretical physicists, making Caltech the center of the universe for the field. The two scientists worked together on a theory that protons, which form the nucleus of an atom, are made up of “partons” or, as Gell-Mann dubbed them, “quarks,” now a fundamental element of quantum physics. At the same time, Feynman was gaining notoriety as a lecturer who was as entertaining as he was enlightening. Goodstein, the vice-provost, described the presentation style as a “longshoreman giving a lecture in physics.” Eventually, two years’ worth of Feynman’s lectures were published in three volumes dubbed the “red books” and officially titled “Feynman Lectures on Physics.”
For all of his intellectual energy, however, Feynman seldom read anything and generally took very little interest in other scientists’ work, much to their exasperation. Tuck says he barely glanced at the scientific papers often piled high in her office.
But he could be a fearsome presence when others were presenting their work, his withering questions often leaving a lecturer stammering. The noted science writer Timothy Ferris remembers watching Feynman harass a colleague over his inability to answer basic questions. Finally Feynman said: “You know, this is stuff we do for a living. It would be helpful if you could give us something we could use.”
He was equally difficult with those who did not hold his interest. When the historian Robert B. Crease once asked him a question about the progress of science, Feynman grew surprisingly angry: “It’s a dumb question. I don’t know how to answer it. Cancel everything I said.”
After his third marriage, to Gweneth Howarth in 1960, Feynman’s life took a more stable turn, with children (Carl and Michelle) and a large house in Altadena. But even that relationship began in a Feynmanesque twist. They met on a beach on Lake Geneva. Gweneth, who grew up in Great Britain, was working as a nanny. Feynman, after much effort, convinced her to work for him as a domestic in California. It was not uncommon in the beginning of their time together to see Gweneth driving her employer to Caltech in the morning. Gradually, the relationship turned romantic and matrimonial.
In 1965, Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, along with two other scientists, for his quantum electrodynamics work. The phone started ringing in the middle of the night. By afternoon a huge banner was draped across Caltech’s Throop Hall, bearing this backward-sounding message: “Win big, RF.”
Feynman characterized his work as inventing “a scheme for pushing a great problem under the rug. Maybe it will stay under the rug and, then again, maybe it won’t.” Then he proceeded to concoct a pithy quip to avoid endless explanations for what he had done: “Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel Prize.”
The Nobel enhanced Feynman’s aura within the world of physics, though his was hardly a household name outside of it. It is difficult, after all, to make quantum physics sexy. But it’s surely easier if the physicist is a rake.
one of feynman’s closest friends in Pasadena was Jirayr Zorthian, a muralist who lives on 45 acres in the San Gabriel foothills. A spry man who prides himself on his fitness even at 90, Zorthian recalls their meeting many years ago when “we were both competing for the favors of a lovely Italian beauty.”
They met again when Feynman was speaking at a World Affairs Council meeting in Pasadena after the Russians launched the Sputnik spacecraft in 1957, leaving the U.S. space program scrambling to compete. “I’d forgotten I’d met him,” Zorthian says. “He took the attitude of who the hell cares who put it up first, that duplication of effort is wasteful.”
The two became fast friends, and they discussed art often, especially after Feynman took up drawing as a hobby. “He somehow couldn’t get it in his head that an artist didn’t need to know all the details of nature to be excited about it,” Zorthian says. “I said, ‘You scientists don’t look at nature the way an artist does. You get so involved in the function of it that you lose the spontaneity of the flower.’ ”
Soon after, Feynman arrived at Zorthian’s house carrying a box. He ripped it open dramatically, revealing a microscope that he asked Zorthian to peer into.
“I said, ‘My God, it’s beautiful. What is it?’ ”
“And he said, ‘What you’re looking at is the head of a common fly.’ ”
The years moved along. Carl was born, then Michelle. Feynman doodled on the bar napkins of strip joints, experimented with marijuana and flotation tanks, bought a van and had it custom-painted to resemble his famous diagrams. He took his family on camping trips and drew nudes in his home studio. He also came to know Ralph Leighton when the physicist and the then-high school student began jamming together. And when they took breaks, Feynman would begin telling his yarns.
“They were just fascinating,” says Leighton, whose father had worked closely with Feynman at Caltech. “We had no idea how blessed we were at the time. But I also felt a strong feeling of diamonds slipping through my fingers.”
Leighton says Feynman would occasionally complain that people who interviewed him often missed the “good stuff,” meaning the nonscientific stories that he tended to toss into the mix. “I piped up and said I’d be happy to write it up,” Leighton says.
The taping sessions stretched for more than seven years, culminating in the 1985 publication of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.” It was followed by “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” Feynman quipped that the paperback edition of “Surely You’re Joking” was about as popular as taxes because it was wedged between two income tax tomes on the bestseller list. Joke as he might, the books put Feynman before a public that otherwise might not have heard of him.
In 1978, Feynman began what would become a long battle with stomach cancer. He’d let an abdominal tumor go too long without treatment, and a large lump was visible when Feynman stood straight. Months earlier, Gweneth also had undergone surgery for cancer. Feynman emerged from his surgery gaunt and fatigued. And while he would recover and continue to teach, it was clear that his health had been dealt a blow.
The last major chapter in Feynman’s life opened in 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral on a cold January day and exploded, killing the crew of seven. William R. Graham, the acting director of NASA, was ordered by then-President Reagan to help select a group of prominent Americans to investigate the disaster. Among those named was Feynman, much to his surprise. He accepted, going against his natural inclination to avoid anything with the word “commission” in the title. But he saw it as a duty akin to his work on the Manhattan Project. Feynman’s sometimes biting, sometimes amusing displays did not endear him to everyone involved in the investigation. But he could not be ignored. He also felt that he had found the cause, but feared it would be covered up. So he made a plan. His sister, Joan, a scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says Feynman first consulted a journalist cousin on how to handle the press. “He was a showman,” she says. “Good entertainers know what they are going to do.”
On the morning of a hearing on the disaster, Feynman hailed a Washington, D.C., taxi and drove to a hardware store, where he bought a small C-clamp and a pair of pliers. Then, when the moment was right at the hearing, Feynman ordered ice water. Taking a piece of the now-infamous shuttle rubber O ring, Feynman clamped it tight and dropped it into the water, which was the approximate near-freezing temperature on the morning of the crash. When he pulled the rubber out, Feynman showed how the clamped portion remained compressed after the clamp was removed.
It was a vivid demonstration, showing how the volatile fuels in the rocket booster could have leaked though a gap in the O rings because the temperature at Cape Canaveral was too low at launch time. The experiment dominated television and newspaper reports. Feynman, in one deft stroke, had put NASA in its place.
In his own report on the shuttle disaster, Feynman returned to a mantra that had governed his life in science--that reality was the key and that “nature cannot be fooled.’
When Feynman returned to California, he had less than two years to live.
This period of his life is the one being portrayed by Alda in the play “QED,” which will run through mid-December in New York. Alda says he became interested in developing a play about Feynman after reading yet another Leighton book about him titled “Tuva or Bust.”
The book recounts the two men’s quixotic efforts to visit Tuva, whose location between Siberia and Mongolia makes it one of the world’s most isolated places. Alda says the quest embodied what Feynman was all about.
“Instead of racing against death to do great and ‘important’ work, he devoted his time to what others might consider a trivial pursuit,” Alda says. “I thought it was fascinating that he was interested in things simply because they interested him, not because he was supposed to be interested in them.”
Feynman developed another stomach tumor in 1987, and doctors prepared for an operation. But it was clear that Feynman was fading. Word began to spread on the Caltech campus that its brightest star was about to undergo an operation he probably would not survive. The news caused Juliana Sackman, Robert Christy’s wife and an ardent Feynman fan, to make a banner, one that could be seen throughout the campus. There was a chance that Feynman might see it as well, that he might make it after all.
She enlisted students to help. And when they were finally done, the banner was draped atop Millikan Library, Caltech’s tallest building. It said, “We Love You, Dick.”
But Feynman was already gone. His final words, spoken from his bed: “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.