It was in a recent episode of Big Bang Theory where one of the main characters in the popular sitcom, while visiting the grave of Richard Feynman in a state of inebriation, reminisced, “When I was a kid, I’d put on some headphones and crank up one of his lectures and just jam out to knowledge”. On watching that, I rather amusingly recalled my own experience of once going to bed listening to the Feynman audiobooks as my bedtime stories.
The brash and uproarious character of Richard Feynman shattered the typical public perception of a physicist as a withdrawn and agoraphobic creature. Neither was he an absent-minded genius with a wild mane he could not be bothered to tame. Instead, he frequented strip clubs, banged away at the bongo, and painted at a level that was decent enough to have his paintings sold. It is hard to pin down one single quality that makes up his enduring appeal. This short YouTube video of the great iconoclast talking about light, however, might just offer a taste of his infectious passion for science, even many years after he died.
His numerous achievements in physics aside, further elevating him to the status of a legend are his quirks and his many adventures, immortalised in his memoirs Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. Light-hearted and heartwarming as they are, the anecdotes contained in these two volumes also offer a glimpse into the inner workings of his mind, and are curiously able to make you see the world, if momentarily, from another point of view.
“I was born not knowing and have only had a little time to change that here and there.”
One of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, Richard Phillips Feynman was born on 11th May 1918 in Manhattan, New York City to Lucille and Melville Feynman. A late talker, he did not start talking until two, causing his mother to worry for months. Much of the early making of the scientist could be attributed to his father who encouraged his natural curiosity to explore the world. From early on, Melville Feynman would sat little Richard down on his lap and read to him from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, teaching him how to “translate” what they read into some tangible reality. It was an ability which came into good use later in his life as he navigated his way through the abstractions of quantum mechanics. As his biographer James Gleick put it, Feynman had “a lightning ability to see into the heart of the problems nature posed”.
By his own account, another important lesson his father, who was in the uniform business, instilled in him was a disrespect for authority. Indeed, this quality of being unencumbered by decorum was what later earned him the respect of many great giants in his field who, often having won a Nobel prize and established themselves, tended to have difficulties discussing anything without their ideas unchallenged. It took one such as Richard Feynman to usher physics into a new era.
As a little boy, Ritty—as his friends called him—loved to tinker with radios. From the little laboratory in his bedroom, he was able to catch a radio station program 300 km away, one hour before it was broadcasted in New York. The laboratory was soon expanded to cover the entire house, allowing him to make broadcasts.
His propensity for physics and mathematics was clear from a very young age. Finding the level taught at school much too easy, he soon became bored. Upon finding the schoolboy Richard unchallenged and recognising his aptitude for mathematics, a school teacher gave him a higher-level book of mathematics to work on at the back of the classroom, whereupon the journey of self-taught mathematics began. Keeping his own notebook of mathematics gave him a different “set of tools” which often enabled him to reach a solution faster than his colleagues later in his professional career.
What is captured aplenty in the aforementioned two books is his curiosity to explore fields other than his own. As a graduate student at Princeton, he decided to expand his knowledge by checking out what “the rest of the world was doing”, and so began to attend a philosophy seminar. In a display of surprising frankness, having listened to the arguments the philosophers were having, he pointed out the perennial problem with philosophers—that they did not even agree on the definition of what they were arguing about.
But what is, perhaps, lesser known is that Feynman also dabbled in biology. In the summer of 1960, he began working in the laboratory of the geneticist Max Delbrück on the rII mutation of the bacteriophage T4. There he chanced upon a new phenomenon of mutual suppression of mutations within the same gene, dubbed the “Feyntrons” by his colleagues in the laboratory. Keen to go back to his quantum theory of gravity, however, Feynman did not publish the work. It was later discovered independently and is now known as intragenic suppression.
Soon after finishing his PhD, Feynman became part of the elite group of physicists working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War, where the leader J. Robert Oppenheimer declared him as the most brilliant young physicist at the atomic bomb project. Shortly after the war in 1948, the same group of physicists gathered in a resort hotel to discuss the crisis in their then understanding of the atom. It was here that the “half genius and half buffoon”, as the physicist Freeman Dyson put it, introduced his unifying theory of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics using his famously simple Feynman diagrams. The theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) later won him a Nobel Prize in 1965.
The mathematician Mark Kac who worked with Feynman at Cornell University described him in a way that could not have been more apt:
“There are two kinds of geniuses, the “ordinary” and the “magicians.” An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician’s mind works. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.”
And to this magician, I bow.