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Feynman the joker

11 May 2018

The great physicist was fond of pranks, quips, and his own stories—qualities that contemporaries found endearing but also, at times, aggravating and inappropriate.

Feynman at Caltech, 1964
Richard Feynman educates and entertains his audience during a coffee hour at Caltech in 1964. Credit: Caltech Archives

Richard Phillips Feynman, who was born 100 years ago today, made his mark with contributions to particle physics, superfluidity, and quantum electrodynamics—the last of which won him the 1965 Nobel Prize. That honor alone would have been enough to guarantee him a place in the history of science. He’s also remembered for his ability to captivate a lecture hall—the Feynman Lectures on Physics (1964) are still in print. In polls ranking history’s greatest physicists, Feynman routinely finishes near the top.

Yet Feynman’s posthumous reputation rests not just on his aptitude for physics but also on his playful personality. He’s known for pulling pranks at Los Alamos, trying his hand at a variety of quirky hobbies, and taking road trips in a Dodge Tradesman Maxivan painted with his famous Feynman diagrams. Feynman’s love of jokes and verbal swordplay made him an engaging figure at parties and in the pages of his memoirs. It also led him into trouble with colleagues, friends, and family.

Fun at Los Alamos

Feynman grew up in Far Rockaway, New York, and attended college at MIT, a natural choice for a young man who was so impatient to learn calculus he decided to teach himself. He went on to pursue a PhD in Princeton’s physics department under John Wheeler. In 1943, the same year he finished his doctorate, Feynman was recruited to join the Manhattan Project’s bomb design team in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Between 1943 and 1945, he worked on a number of key Los Alamos projects, including performing calculations to determine critical mass and implosion efficiency and collecting data on nuclear chain reactions.

When Feynman recounted his time at Los Alamos, his anecdotes tended to center less on scientific work than on pranks he played on his fellow scientists. Shortly after arriving in New Mexico, Feynman, who had some skill as a picklock, noticed that many documents containing classified scientific material were kept inside insecure wooden filing cabinets. When Feynman pointed out the security gap at a meeting, Edward Teller mentioned that he kept his important secrets in his desk drawer. As Feynman later recounted in a 1975 lecture at Caltech, he couldn’t resist the chance to put his lock-picking skills to the test.

So the meeting continues, and I sneak out and go down to see his desk drawer. OK? I don’t even have to pick the lock on the desk drawer. It turns out that if you put your hand in the back, underneath, you can pull out the paper like those toilet paper dispensers…. I emptied the whole damn drawer, put everything away to one side, and went back upstairs.

At the end of the meeting, Feynman suggested to Teller that the two of them should take a look to see if the older physicist’s desk drawer was secure. Teller guessed right away that Feynman had already broken into the desk. “The trouble with playing a trick on a highly intelligent man like Mr. Teller is that the time it takes him to figure [it] out, from the moment that he sees there is something wrong till he understands exactly what happened, is too damn small to give you any pleasure!” Feynman jokingly lamented.

Feynman's ID badge
Feynman’s security badge photo from Los Alamos. He was only 24 and a newly minted PhD when he began working on the bomb design project. Credit: DOE

Feynman’s postwar career eventually brought him to Caltech, where he took up a position in 1952 and would spend the rest of his career. One of Feynman’s closest colleagues was Murray Gell-Mann, who won the 1969 Nobel Prize for his work on the classification of elementary particles. Gell-Mann, who came to Caltech in 1955, had the office next to Feynman’s. In a 1989 essay for Physics Today, Gell-Mann called his colleague “a most inspiring person” and described him as “a picture of energy, vitality, and playfulness.”

Feynman’s personal life seemed designed to upend every stereotype about serious, socially anxious physicists—not necessarily in positive ways. In his memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character (1985) he infamously bragged about picking up women by treating them as if they were “worthless” (and employing other terms that generally aren’t printed in Physics Today). Though he writes that he eventually abandoned that strategy, the essay is a startlingly ugly read, misogynistic even by the standards of its era. Following the tragic death of his first wife, he experienced a series of dramatic failed relationships before his third marriage to the tough-minded Englishwoman Gweneth Howarth in 1960. The couple had two children, Carl and Michelle, and their family often took road trips in a van that Feynman decorated with his eponymous diagrams.

Feynman also made time for hobbies. His memoirs, including Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”: Further Adventures of a Curious Character (1988), tell stories of his attempts to master Mayan hieroglyphics, his summer vacation in a biology lab, and his love for the bongo drums—a hobby that unexpectedly charmed his landlady in Ithaca, New York.

Personality clashes

Feynman’s talent for physics won the respect of his contemporaries. J. Robert Oppenheimer deemed him the most brilliant physicist at Los Alamos—no small statement given that Hans Bethe, Teller, and Oppenheimer himself all worked there. Feynman’s love of jokes and pranks was often infectious. Gell-Mann fondly recalled helping Feynman sneak a peacock into a friend’s bedroom as a birthday gift.

However, Feynman’s fondness for anecdotes about himself, and his high opinion of his own brilliance, tended to rub colleagues the wrong way after a while. Ted Welton, a fellow MIT graduate who worked with Feynman at Los Alamos, wrote that although Feynman could deal with people he respected “diplomatically, forcefully, usually with humor,” his wit became a weapon when he was dealing with colleagues he felt didn’t meet his standards. “Only a fool would have subjected himself twice to such an experience,” Welton observed.

Feynman's vanFeynman famously painted his 1975 Dodge Tradesman Maxivan with Feynman diagrams. Photo courtesy of Martin Pinnau

Feynman’s faith in his intellect occasionally led collaborators to feel that he took too much credit for ideas he developed in conjunction with others. Though Gell-Mann said he mostly enjoyed working with Feynman, he complained in a 2009 Discover magazine interview that Feynman was too “turned in on himself…. So if in discussing things we came to some interesting conclusion, his interpretation of it was, ‘Gee, boy, I’m smart.’ And it’s just annoying, so after a few years I just wouldn’t work with him.”

Gell-Mann told Discover that eventually Feynman’s estimation of his own importance outstripped his considerable abilities. “Feynman was pretty good, although not as good as he thought he was. He was too self-absorbed and spent a huge amount of energy generating anecdotes about himself.”

Feynman seriously angered at least one person he was close to. In 2012, when journalist Michael Morisy obtained the famed physicist’s FBI file via the Freedom of Information Act, most of the letters in it described Feynman in glowing terms—“outstanding,” a “brilliant physicist,” “discreet and loyal.” However, the file contained one scathing letter from 1958 denouncing him as a security risk. “This man is, in my opinion, an extremely complex and dangerous person, a very dangerous person to have in a position of public trust,” declared the letter writer, whose name was redacted by government censors. “In matters of intrigue Richard Feynman is, I believe, immensely clever—indeed a genius,” the writer admitted, before adding, “and he is, I further believe, completely ruthless, unhampered by morals, ethics, or religion.”

FBI memos in the file reveal that the writer was a woman, and historian Alex Wellerstein makes a compelling case that she was likely Feynman’s ex-wife Mary Louise Bell.

Legacy

As a historian of science, I feel comfortable saying that Feynman is not going to be forgotten anytime soon. When I talk about the history of physics with young aspiring physicists, many of them are drawn to Feynman over Isaac Newton or Marie Curie or even Albert Einstein. Those other physicists are often portrayed as serious figures whose knowledge and wisdom are all but inaccessible to mere mortals. In contrast, the energetic, lively Feynman clearly had fun being a physicist, and had a life outside of physics too.

But Feynman’s charm and brilliance were only one side of his personality. His writings, and the accounts of those who knew him, reveal a man whose faith in his own brilliance could veer into self-absorption and the mistreatment of others, particularly those whom Feynman didn’t consider his equals. Even people who admired Feynman’s intellectual gifts could become exasperated with his antics, and some important professional and personal relationships went off the rails when that happened. Feynman’s legacy reminds us that it’s important to have fun with physics—but to make sure those around us are having fun too.

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