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The physicist Richard Feynman was not only a stunning scientific talent. He also embodied those essential ...
2020-05-11 09:00:00

The Joy of Learning (and Drumming)
The Life of Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman, 1959
The Joy of Learning (and Drumming)
The Joy of Learning (and Drumming)

Richard Feynman, the most jovial of all the great scientists of the 20th century, once said that his drive to develop something for which he later won a Nobel Prize came quite easily: he simply liked physics.

Read in 12 minutes

Bill Gates’ favourite story about Richard Feynman is the one about the young scientist’s first visit to Oak Ridge National Laboratory in connection with the Manhattan Project. “A group of military guys asked him to identify weak spots from a blueprint of the lab, but Feynman didn’t know how to read blueprints,” writes Gates in his introduction to the book Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. “He pointed at a box with an X in it and asked what would happen if a valve gets stuck, hoping that someone would correct him and reveal what the symbol really meant. Feynman was as lucky as he was brilliant, because not only did that symbol represent a valve but it was also a problem area that needed fixing. His colleagues marvelled at his genius and asked how he did it. His answer was, as always, honest and straight to the point: ‘You try to find out whether it’s a valve or not.’”

Physicists and the samba

My favourite anecdote about the Nobel Laureate is a memory recalled by the physicist Marek Demiański, author of the introduction to the Polish edition of Surely You’re Joking, revealingly entitled The Rascal Genius. Well, in July 1962, the 4th International Conference on Gravitational Theory took place at Jabłonna outside Warsaw. Famous names such as Paul Dirac, John Wheeler and Hermann Bondi took part, as well as Richard Feynman. Demiański, with his freshly-minted Master’s degree (he wrote his theses under Professor Leopold Infeld, the main organizer of the event), listened to the speeches and at the end of the day returned by coach to Warsaw together with some of the conference participants who were staying at the Grand Hotel. Feynman was staying there too. One evening he asked Demiański if there were any student clubs in Warsaw. The most popular place at that time was Hybryda and both physicists made their way there. The party was already in full swing; a local band was pumping out rock and roll rhythms, the audience was going crazy. Feynman surveyed the girls, had a drink at the bar and then went up to the musicians who were taking a break. He suggested that he would happily replace their drummer and teach them the samba. It turned out he had recently been in Rio de Janeiro and during the carnival he had played in a band.

“They started to play, at first not very tidily, but after a while one could clearly hear the samba rhythm. The crowd on the dance floor didn’t really know how to move and Feynman looked at them pityingly. When he was sure that the band could manage without them, he put down the drumsticks and, grabbing the prettiest girl to dance, he led a spontaneous samba lesson. He was tireless and, when dawn started to break, he remembered that he was meant to give a lecture at the conference that day, for which he was not completely prepared,” writes Marek Demiański. Fortunately, the lecture was scheduled for the afternoon and Feynman, although nervous at first, went down a storm. He presented his attempts to create a quantum theory of gravity. He spoke rapidly and colourfully, and was always on the move (maybe the samba was still reverberating in his head?). “One might say that it was less a lecture than a solo performance by an actor,” sums up Demiański. Feynman was famous for his ability to teach. He believed that if you could not explain to a child even the most complicated theory, it meant you didn’t understand it yourself. His book Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher is still popular today.

Marek Demiański (currently working with the Institue of Theoretical Physics at Warsaw University) met Feynman again in 1974 at the California Institute of Technology, commonly known as Caltech. It was the end of the academic year and it was in fact Feynman giving the graduate address. He told Demiański about a principle he had been following since childhood: “Keep your eyes wide open, approach everything with circumspection, don’t accept any truth without deep thought, expose and eradicate half truths and demagoguery, learn to wonder at the beauty of the world around you and, above all, think! – about everything.”

It’s difficult to think of a more universal principle.

Is that a T-Rex in the window?

Richard Feynman was born on 11th May 1918 in the little town of Far Rockaway on the outskirts of New York. But before he came into the world, his father (a worker in a company that sewed uniforms) declared to his wife: “If it’s a boy, he’s going to be a scientist.” (Richard’s younger sister, Joan, also did a doctorate in physics.)

When little Rick had barely stood upright, Melville Feynman brought to the house some tiny, colourful bathroom tiles – poorer quality rejects. He put his son in a high chair and placed the tiles next to him like dominoes. The toddler pushed the row and with fascination observed how the tiles fell over one after the other. After a while he started to help set them up. Sometimes in a more complicated way: two white tiles, one blue, two white and one blue, etc. Seeing this, his mother protested: “Leave the poor boy alone. If he wants to put a blue one, let him put a blue tile.” To which his father replied: “No. I want to show him what patterns are like and how interesting they are. It’s a kind of elementary mathematics.”

Melville also taught his son from the encyclopaedia: he read him key words from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example about dinosaurs. Tyrannosaurus rex was described as a creature seven-and-a-half metres tall with a head of almost two metres across. The dad of the future Nobel Prize winner knew very well that information like this meant nothing to a child. So, he explained things with images: “That would mean that if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window as it came by.”

“I had been brought up in the Jewish religion – my family went to the temple every Friday, I was sent to what we called ‘Sunday school’ and I even studied Hebrew for a while – but at the same time, my father was telling me about the world,” recalls Feynman in What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. “When I would hear the rabbi tell about some miracle such as a bush whose leaves were shaking but there wasn’t any wind, I would try to fit the miracle into the real world and explain it in terms of natural phenomena. Some miracles were harder than others to understand. The one about the leaves was easy. When I was walking to school, I heard a little noise: although the wind was hardly noticeable, the leaves of a bush were wiggling a little bit because they were in just the right position to make a kind of resonance. And I thought, ‘Aha! This is a good explanation for Elijah’s vision of the quaking bush!’”

With his unbridled curiosity and thirst for knowledge, 11-year old Richard’s bedroom didn’t look like the typical den of a young man. It was a real laboratory and sometimes the experiments even ended with fire. It was here in his own laboratory that he was happiest spending time. His concerned mother regularly chivvied him outside, into the sun and the fresh air, but he preferred to spend his time creating a burglar alarm or a photocell amplifier, or taking apart and repairing a radio. In the end, this last activity became a rather good money spinner for the talented teenager.

The only difference is the hat

His father didn’t only infect Richard with curiosity about the world. Equally important was independent thinking and distrust of hierarchy. While his son was still small, Melville used to look at the rotogravures with him – the printed pictures in the New York Times. One of these was a photograph of the Pope and people bowing to him. Feynman remembers his father’s comment: “‘Now, look at those humans. Here’s one human standing here, and all these others are bowing in front of him. Now, what’s the difference? This one is the pope,’ he hated the pope anyway. He said ‘This difference is the hat he’s wearing.’ (If it was a general, it was the epaulettes. It was always the costume, the uniform, the position.) ‘But,’ he said, ‘this man has the same problems as everybody else; he eats dinner, he goes to the bathroom. He’s a human being.’”

This allergy to epaulettes brought results. Throughout his life, Richard retained his distaste for titles and honours, as well as maintaining his childhood talent for playing with science. In an interview with BBC television in 1981, entitled The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, he described how, among other things, he enjoyed physics and other mathematical activities, which, because they amused him, enabled him to quickly manage to develop something for which later he won the Nobel Prize. To clarify: Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in 1965 together with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga for his developmental work on quantum electrodynamics.

When a journalist asked him whether these achievements were worth the Nobel Prize, the physicist laughed and said: “I don’t know anything about the Nobel Prize, I don’t understand what it’s all about or what’s worth what, but if the people in the Swedish Academy decide that ‘x’, ‘y’, or ‘z’ wins the Nobel Prize then so be it. I won’t have anything to do with the Nobel Prize … it’s a pain in the … [laughs]. I don’t like honours. I appreciate it for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it, and I know there’s a lot of physicists who use my work […] I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize – I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it [my work] – those are the real things, the honours are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honours, it bothers me, honours bother, honours is epaulettes, honours is uniforms.”

Richard’s mother, Lucille Phillips Feynman, also had a significant influence on her son. “She had a wonderful sense of humour, and I learned from her that the highest forms of understanding we can achieve are laughter and human compassion,” revealed the scientist.

Inspirational particles and depression

Psychology describes a phenomenon known as flow. Certainly, each of us experiences it sometimes; that fantastic inspirational state when we dive into our favourite activity and the whole world retreats into insignificance. Time ceases to exist; our surroundings don’t matter. The only thing that is important is what we are doing right then: running, cycling, dancing, painting, practising yoga, writing an article or… working on quantum electrodynamics and its implications for the physics of elementary particles.

Richard Feynman must have been very familiar with flow. He was always learning something new (not just playing the bongos and congas, but also studying the fundamentals of drawing – he would then go on to practice his latest technique, painting a portrait of girls dancing topless in a club). He researched, solved riddles, opened safes and deciphered Mayan symbols. He treated learning as a source of joy and as a challenge. That is why, in 1941, he accepted an invitation to the Manhattan Project – the American programme to build an atomic bomb. He had only just received his doctorate and was the youngest member of the scientific team participating in the undertaking. He had to stop the research he was doing, “to do this, which I felt I should do in order to protect civilization.”

On 6th August 1945, the atomic bomb was exploded over Hiroshima. “The only reaction that I remember […] was a very considerable elation and excitement, and there were parties and people got drunk and it would make a tremendously interesting contrast, what was going on in Los Alamos at the same time as what was going on in Hiroshima. I was involved with this happy thing and also drinking and drunk and playing drums sitting on the hood of – the bonnet of – a Jeep and playing drums with excitement running all over Los Alamos at the same time as people were dying and struggling in Hiroshima,” said Feynman in the aforementioned interview The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. “I had a very strong reaction after the war of a peculiar nature – it may be from just the bomb itself and it may be for some other psychological reasons, I’d just lost my wife or something [Arline, Feynman’s first wife, died in 1946 of tuberculosis – ed. note], but I remember being in New York, with my mother in a restaurant […]. I knew how big the bomb in Hiroshima was, how big an area it covered and so on, and I realized from where we were – I don’t know, 59th Street – that to drop one on 34th Street, it would spread all the way out here and all these people would be killed and all the things would be killed and there wasn’t only one bomb available, but it was easy to continue to make them, and therefore that things were sort of doomed because already it appeared to me – very early, earlier than to others who were more optimistic – that international relations and the way people were behaving were no different than they had ever been before and that it was just going to go the same way as any other thing and I was sure that it was going, therefore, to be used very soon. […] So I was really in a kind of depressive condition.”


Work – and an open mind – once again provided the way out. Feynman’s open mind shone in 1986 after the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle (which took place on 28th January, just after the launch). A commission to investigate the cause of the catastrophe was organized, which included politicians, astronauts, military personnel and one scientist, Feynman. He flew all over the US in order to talk to engineers and ground crew. They all quickly realized that propaganda was more important to the space mission than safety. The report that the physicist wrote turned out to be so problematic for NASA that the commission thought about classifying it. It was finally published, but only as an attachment to the main text. Americans to this day remember the live press conference during which Feynman, in front of the entire commission and millions of viewers, placed a piece of rubber seal into a container of iced water. The role of the seal was to prevent hot gas from escaping from a sleeve linking two sections of the rocket. But after cooling to a temperature near zero degrees centigrade, the rubber lost its flexibility and became brittle. Vital seals on the Challenger failed because the project management had ignored the warnings of engineers that the outside temperature was too low to proceed with the launch. The desire to prove themselves in front of their superiors turned out to be stronger.

Telling children about the world

Feynman’s report about the shuttle explosion undoubtedly makes an impression. But I like him most for keeping a custom introduced by his father: telling the youngest about the world. The Nobel Prize winner also told his son about the phenomena around him, in order to encourage his natural childish curiosity. He recalled: “I’d make up a story about little people that were about so high [who] would walk along and they would go on picnics and so on and they lived in the ventilator; and they’d go through these wood which had great big long tall blued things like trees, but without leaves and only one stalk, and they had to walk between them and so on; and he’d gradually catch on that that was the rug, the nap of the rug, the blue rug, and he loved this game […] He even visited a moist cave where the wind kept going in and out – it was coming in cool and went out warms and so on. It was inside the dog’s nose that they went, and then of course I could tell him all about physiology by this way and so on. […] and we had fun when he would guess what it was and so on.”

Therefore, we should respect our flow. If you see that your husband, wife, child or neighbour has been grabbed by creative flow, don’t block it. Don’t bother them with questions like: “How was school/work?” Let the joy of discovery and studying the world and also the creation of new worlds engulf us. Who knows, maybe in a few years’ time we will be collecting some prize? (Although, of course, awards don’t matter.)

In writing this article, I drew on the following books:

Richard P. Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. (Polish translation published by Prószyński i S-ka, Warsaw 1999);

Richard P. Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character, (Polish translation published by Znak, Kraków 2018);

Richard P. Feynman, What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character (Polish translation published by Znak, Kraków 2019).


Translated from the Polish by Annie Jaroszewicz

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