Twelve-year-old Richard Feynman’s room was a mess. Old, broken radios were scattered across the floor; spark plugs and electronic gizmos overflowed from a big wooden box; a well-worn microscope protruded from a tabletop covered with specimens and slides; and a book titled Trigonometry for the Practical Man lay open on the bed.
Richard navigated through the chaos of his room, walked out the door, down the hall, and into his three-year-old sister Joan’s room. He woke her, saying he wanted to show her something wonderful. They left the house and walked through the streets of Far Rockaway holding hands. When they reached a golf course, far away from the city lights, Richard stopped and said, “Look up.”1 There, in the sky above them, shone the aurora borealis, a beautiful green curtain of light caused, as Richard explained, by excited nitrogen atoms colliding with one another and emitting photons.2 Few twelve year olds knew this phenomenon was taking place; far fewer knew how. But Richard was not an average boy.
Richard was the kid who presented a book report about a tale of mystery and adventure while delaying the revelation that he was talking about a math text.3 He was the kid who earned the curious title “the boy who fixes radios by thinking.”4 He was the boy who, in high school, won math competitions by circling his answers mere moments after the questions were asked.5
Richard read voraciously on any subject that interested him, amassing, integrating, and applying an ever-expanding wealth of knowledge. When his friend Arline told him that she was studying the works of Descartes in her philosophy class and that Descartes had proved the existence of God, Richard replied, “Impossible!” After examining Descartes’ argument, Richard confirmed his initial conclusion: “It’s a bunch of baloney.” When Arline said, “Well, I guess it’s okay to take the other side. My teacher keeps telling us, ‘There are two sides to every question, just like there are two sides to every piece of paper’”—Richard excitedly shot back: “There are two sides to that, too.” He grabbed a strip of paper, gave it a half-twist, connected the two ends, and handed her a one-sided piece of paper known as a Möbius strip (named after its discoverer, August Ferdinand Möbius). The next time her teacher repeated the cliché, Arline held up her own Möbius strip and said, “Sir, there are even two sides to that question: There’s paper with only one side!”6
Richard and Arline’s relationship soon blossomed into a beautiful romance of principle and passion. As Feynman tells it:
[Arline] and I began to mold each other’s personality. She lived in a family that was very polite, and was very sensitive to other people’s feelings. She taught me to be more sensitive to those kinds of things, too. On the other hand, her family thought that “white lies” were okay.
I thought one should have the attitude of “What do you care what other people think!” I said, “We should listen to other people’s opinions and take them into account. Then, if they don’t make sense and we think they’re wrong, then that’s that!”
[Arline] caught on to the idea right away. It was easy to talk her into thinking that in our relationship we must be very honest with each other and say everything straight, with absolute frankness. It worked very well, and we became very much in love—a love like no other I know of.7
Tragically, Arline was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis, and Richard’s family pressured him to move on. But Richard’s love for her was absolute, and he married Arline despite her disease and the despair it would surely cause him.
Feynman attended both MIT and Princeton, where he eagerly studied everything that piqued his interest. He posed such questions as “What happens when you go to sleep?” and “How does the mind actually turn off?”—and then proceeded tenaciously to pursue the answers. In this case, for instance, every night, for almost a month, Feynman turned off the lights and went to sleep—while examining and noting what happened as he did so.8
Feynman marveled at phenomena of all kinds and every scale. One day, he stopped to observe some ants. Pulling from his pocket the glass of a microscope, he engrossed himself in a little-known wonder of nature.
I had to exclaim out loud. I was so excited. What I saw was an ant and an aphid, which ants take care of—they carry them from plant to plant if the plant they’re on is dying. In return the ants get partially digested aphid juice, called “honeydew.” . . .
So here was this aphid and sure enough, an ant came along, and patted it with its feet—all around the aphid, pat, pat, pat, pat, pat. This was terribly exciting! Then the juice came out of the back of the aphid. And because it was magnified it looked like a big, beautiful, glistening ball. . . .
The ant took the ball in its two front feet, lifted it off the aphid, and held it. The world is so different at that scale that you can pick up water and hold it! . . . Then the ant broke the surface of the drop with its mouth, and the surface tension collapsed the drop right into his gut. It was very interesting to see this whole thing happen!9
Feynman was most fascinated by physics, and he loved the challenge of solving problems. If ever he found himself without a problem to solve, he would try to come up with one. If he could not identify a good problem on his own, he would stand in the corridor of the physics building and ask passersby what problems they were working on—and then rush off to solve them himself.10
Feynman’s abilities and reputation soon opened doors to the grandest problems and most profound projects. One day, while he sat at his desk working, a man entered and informed him of a top-secret project in need of top-notch physicists. The U.S. government was gathering men to construct a special bomb to defeat the Nazis. After enumerating the problems that would have to be solved, the man reminded Feynman that this information was top-secret and that only those involved in the project were to know about it. “It’s all right that you told me the secret because I’m not going to tell anybody,” Feynman said, “but I’m not going to do it.” Surprised, the man mentioned that there was a meeting at three o’clock for those who would take part in the program, and he left.
Feynman went back to work—for about three minutes. Then he began thinking about what would happen if Germany created such a bomb before America did. At three o’clock, Feynman walked into the meeting. An hour later, the twenty-four year old sat at a desk working on problems related to the atomic bomb.11
The project soon required Feynman to move to the dusty, half-built town of Los Alamos, where the research facility was being built. (At this point, Arline’s condition required that she stay in a sanatorium, and fortunately such a facility was nearby.) Feynman quickly became a team leader in the theoretical division, where he “drove his team hard in pursuit of his latest unorthodox idea for solving whatever problem was at hand.”12 Unorthodox though his ideas were, they often proved fruitful. His unusual methods and many successes not only won the loyalty of his team’s members but also motivated them to experiment in like fashion themselves.
He was assigned to other groups as well, where he worked on projects such as calculating the efficiency of the bomb, figuring out how to safely store radioactive material, and computing the energy that would be released from the first trial detonation at Trinity.13
Such work would be enough to exhaust the time and energy of the average genius, but while Feynman worked on these projects he also found time and energy to train himself in the art of cracking safes, to play bongos at parties, and to exchange coded letters with Arline. But Feynman was not only brilliant and full of energy; he was also, as previously indicated, fiercely independent and utterly honest—virtues that were not lost on the great thinkers in his midst.
Hans Bethe, the head of the theoretical division, discovered these characteristics of Feynman after telling him of an idea he had and how he thought a corresponding experiment would turn out. “No, no, you’re crazy,” Feynman said. “It’ll go like this . . .” Bethe then countered that he wasn’t crazy, Feynman was, and their mutually respectful relationship began. Each had found someone from whom he could get original feedback, not just agreement.14
Likewise, Niels Bohr, after his first visit to Los Alamos, told his son:
Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.15
Whether judging the ideas of Descartes or Bohr or anyone else, Feynman always thought for himself and said what he thought.
Unfortunately, although Feynman’s work was going well, Arline’s health was not. The tuberculosis had taken its toll, and on June 16, 1945, Arline died.
Feynman had been sitting with her for hours, holding her hand, and when the nurse announced that Arline had died, Feynman “leaned over to kiss her and made a mental note of the surprising scent of her hair, surprising because it was the same as always.”16 In the years ahead, Feynman would miss his love as intensely as he loved her. He later wrote her this letter:
I adore you, sweetheart. I know how much you like to hear that—but I don’t only write it because you like it—I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.
It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you—almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense in writing. But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and what I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you—I always will love you.
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 care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you—I want to do little projects with you. . . . I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else—but I want to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive. . . . My darling wife, I adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead.17
* * *
A few weeks after Arline died, the Los Alamos scientists detonated the first test bomb at Trinity. While all the other spectators wore dark glasses to shield their eyes from the potentially harmful effects, Feynman, confident in his assessment of the safety, watched the detonation with naked eyes.18 Later, back at Los Alamos, he enthusiastically detailed for his team what he had seen. In a letter to his mother, Feynman wrote, “The fellows working for me all gathered in the hall with open mouths while I told them. They were all proud as hell of what they had done.”19
Feynman, too, was proud. He knew that the bomb might bring an end to the war and that his work had helped to achieve it.
Following his work at Los Alamos, Feynman took a job teaching physics at Cornell. But, for some reason unknown to him at the time, he quickly burned out. For the first time in his life, he found himself with no new ideas and with little interest in generating any. He was teaching at a top university—even receiving lucrative competing offers from other prestigious institutions—yet he was in a rut. “They expect me to accomplish something,” Feynman thought, “and I can’t accomplish anything! I have no ideas.”
This problem persisted until, one day, while shaving, Feynman realized the cause: He had become focused on what others thought he was going to accomplish or should accomplish, and he was worried about disappointing them. At that, Feynman laughed. “I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be,” he thought. And then he made a decision: “I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.” Here is what happened next:
Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.
I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate—two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?” . . .
I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it . . . I was “playing”—working, really—with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos. . . .
It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was.20
By the time he was finished playing, Feynman had developed a new theory of how electrons and photons interact. The theory gave consistent answers to physical problems that the old theory could not and introduced the pioneering “Feynman diagram,” an aid to calculation that soon after became widely used.21 For these achievements, Feynman won the 1965 Nobel Prize for physics.
More importantly to Feynman, who did not care much for such honors, he had corrected his temporary, life-thwarting error of concerning himself primarily with what others wanted, and he was now back to his curiosity-driven, life-loving self.
He set out to organize everything he knew about the world, as if putting together a giant puzzle. How was each part related to the next? What were the missing links? How could he find them and fit them in as well?22 Over the next few decades, he made further discoveries and developed powerful new theories, including a theory of super-fluidity (the frictionless behavior of liquid helium when cooled to near absolute zero) and a theory of weak interaction (the force at work in beta decay, where an electron or positron is emitted from a nucleus).23
Feynman continued playing and teaching for a few more years at Cornell and then for thirty-five years at Caltech. What would it be like to study under the guidance of such a brilliant, creative, and passionate physicist? The following recollection of a student’s first day in Feynman’s class provides an indication.
There were 183 of us freshmen, and a bowling ball hanging from the three-story ceiling to just above the floor. Feynman walked in and, without a word, grabbed the ball and backed against the wall with the ball touching his nose. He let go, and the ball swung slowly 60 feet across the room and back—stopping naturally just short of crushing his face. Then he took the ball again, stepped forward, and said: “I wanted to show you that I believe in what I’m going to teach you over the next two years.”24
Feynman filled each class with excitement and drama, but he maintained that “The real entertainment gimmick is the excitement, drama, and mystery of the subject matter.”25
Feynman’s curiosity about his subject matter—the physical world—was boundless, and he understood that understanding the world does not and cannot detract from the sublimity of life but can only enhance it. Of the so-called “poets” who prefer ignorance to understanding, he wrote the following:
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars—mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination—stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern—of which I am a part—perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. . . . What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?26
In 1957, Feynman met an English woman named Gweneth on a beach in Geneva. He immediately liked her, and after returning to the States wrote her many letters, finally convincing her to come work for him as a maid.27 The two fell in love, married, and raised two children, Carl and Michelle, with whom they engaged in all sorts of adventures and excursions. They tracked the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, traveled the Japanese countryside, hiked in the Swiss Alps, and camped in deserts. Sometimes they would get in the family van and simply drive, taking whichever road looked the most interesting and seeing where it led. Other times they stayed home and played games. Feynman and his son invented a favorite in which Feynman would describe their surroundings from the view of an almost microscopic traveler. For instance, he would describe the forest of tall, leafless trees that this explorer was making his way through, and Carl would guess, after some time and with much enjoyment, that the “forest” was actually the carpet.28
One could write a book on Feynman’s achievements, and several people have. Among countless other things, he founded the field of nanotechnology, furthered our understanding of DNA, and discovered the cause of the space shuttle Challenger disaster.
Feynman’s approach to life is perhaps best summed up in the title of his posthumously published book of essays, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Good living, he knew, is a matter of using one’s mind and enjoying oneself. His remarkable life came to an end in 1988, when he was overtaken by two rare forms of cancer. Fittingly, as he lay on his deathbed, his last words were, “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”29
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1 James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (New York: Vintage), p. 27.
2 Gleick, Genius, p. 27.
3 See Basic Feynman, http://www.basicfeynman.com/memories.html.
4 Richard P. Feynman, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), p. 20.
5 Gleick, Genius, pp. 33–34.
6 Richard P. Feynman, “What do you care what other people think?” Further Adventures of a Curious Character (New York: W. W. Norton & Company), pp. 28–30.
7 Feynman, “What do you care what other people think?” p. 33.
8 Feynman, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” p. 47
9 Feynman, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” p. 93.
10 Gleick, Genius, p. 82.
11 Feynman, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” pp. 107-8.
12 Gleick, Genius, p. 171.
13 Gleick, Genius, pp. 198–99.
14 Feynman, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” p. 112.
15 Feynman, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” p. 133.
16 Gleick, Genius, p. 202.
17 Richard P. Feynman, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track (New York: Basic Books), p. 68.
18 Feynman, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” p. 134.
19 Feynman, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations, pp. 68–69.
20 Feynman, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” pp. 172–74.
21 Gleick, Genius, p. 9
22 Gleick, Genius, p. 359.
23 Feynman, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations, p. 442.
24 See Fun_People Archive, http://www.langston.com/Fun_People/1994/1994ABX.html.
25 Feynman, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations, p. 98.
26 Richard P. Feynman, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by its Most Brilliant Teacher (New York: Basic Books), pp. 59–60.
27 Gleick, Genius, pp. 340–46.
28 Gleick, Genius, pp. 396–97.
29 Gleick, Genius, p. 438.