Richard Feynman – Personal Impressions

(Last Updated On: August 7, 2015)

Feynman photo, nano.gov crop 206x200pxRichard Feynman was widely hailed as the greatest physicist of the last half of the 20th century.

He was a “physicist’s physicist,” meaning that he commanded uncommon respect throughout the physics community, not only for his published research but for his remarkable ability to make valuable contributions to almost every corner of science that drew his attention. A 1999 survey of leading physicists worldwide ranked Feynman among the top ten physicists of all time, a list that included Albert Einstein (whose most important work was in the first half of the century), Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei. Feynman was the only American on that list.

Feynman made substantial scientific contributions, as attested by his shared 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics, the 1979 National Medal of Science and many other awards. He taught at the California Institute of Technology as a professor of theoretical physics from 1950 until his death in 1988. He taught graduate students, and developed undergraduate physics courses captured in the famous Red Books that are entertaining, insightful and wide-ranging. He is credited with launching the field of nanotechnology with his 1959 talk “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” which makes interesting reading even today.

Feynman’s reputation as a popular explainer of science was cemented by his role in the formal inquest into the 1986 Challenger spacecraft disaster. However, on the Caltech campus he was equally renowned for his after-hours exploits, which included playing bongo drumsdrawing nudes (often, strippers at a bar that he frequented), studying the Mayan calendar and learning Portuguese so that he could lecture (and womanize) in Brazil. He became so well known away from the blackboard that there are books of his non-scientific exploits – one of the best is Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

I was reminded of Richard Feynman by a note from Charles South, a long-time friend and fellow alumnus of Hughes Research Laboratories, now HRL Laboratories LLC. You have already seen a number of thoughtful comments by Charles in response to posts on this website. Charles’ search for an article about Feynman led him down memory lane and he wrote a great reminiscence that he sent to me. That in turn caused me to recall the contacts I had with Feynman at Caltech and HRL through the years.

Much has been written about Feynman the man, and Feynman the physicist. However, not often will you read a personal memoir from a contemporary who was not a close colleague but who experienced the aura that seemed to accompany Feynman everywhere he went.

I thought you, my readers, might enjoy these recollections, and Charles agreed that I could share his portion with you as well. If our memories capture your fancy, you will see how this giant of 20th century physics left his mark on others around him. If you find our chat too long, we won’t be offended if you drift away!

Recollection of Richard Feynman by Charles South

There is a blog on the Internet called Farnam Street written by Shane Parrish, which focuses on using knowledge about science, culture, history, etc as an aid to decision making. It’s kind of eclectic, but one of the subjects on which he’s written multiple times is Richard Feynman (a web search is what landed me on the site in the first place this morning). After reading the article that was the focus of my search, I decided to find out what other articles he might have written which incorporated or focused on Feyman. The URL below extracts all his articles that mention Feynman:

http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?s=feynman

I first encountered the name Richard Feynman at Berkeley in the late 60s when I was getting an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. One of the other boys in my dorm my first year was majoring in Physics, and I was interested to see how different our educations were going to be even though we were both studying scientific subjects which I had naively thought were closely related.

“Engineering” at Berkeley was its own college with its own curriculum, which was heavily tilted toward engineering classes and with very little freedom to take classes outside of its own discipline, while “Physics” was in the College of Letters and Science and made a strong effort to see that a student got a balanced education including a number of subjects outside the immediate discipline of physics. I think the reason for that dichotomy was that engineering was regarded as a technology skill and intends to roll out students with usable skills after 4 years of study, while physics was a discipline that led its most promising students into a PhD program if they wanted to make a career out of it (something like the distinction between pre-med or pre-law degrees prior to the real learning which takes place after an undergraduate education). As a discipline with a short-term goal, engineering couldn’t “waste time” with all the humanities stuff, and only grudgingly allowed a few other classes outside engineering, probably because they were forced to include them by the university administration as a token effort to turn out more-rounded graduates.

One of those differences I noted between the physics student and myself was that I had a very basic physics course with a standard textbook while the physics student had these peculiar red books written by this guy named Richard Feynman, titled The Feynman Lectures in Physics. In our discussions, the physics student liked to tell me about the unorthodox and thought-inspiring approaches to learning physics that were in those books, which sounded fascinating to me compared to my own dry course with its rote step-by-step learning approach. I even borrowed volume 1 from him for a couple of weeks to read the first few lectures but the time pressures of keeping up with my own classes eventually caused me to stop.

I next encountered the name Feynman after I graduated from Berkeley and came to Los Angeles, where I got a degree in computer science while working part time in the fellowship program at Hughes Aircraft in the El Segundo area. During my sophomore year at Berkeley I had taken my first computer course in programming, an exotic new discipline in those heady first days of the computer age, and fallen in love with everything about writing software for computers. From that point forward I made every decision about my career by making choices favoring more involvement with computers. And though it couldn’t “save me” from engineering at Berkeley (once started, it’s impossible to get out of the engineering program unless you’re willing to throw away 75% of the class credits you’ve received), it allowed me to take the branch toward a computer science degree instead of a further engineering degree once I went on to UCLA.

Within Hughes I specialized in writing computer software … landing me in a development group in the central data processing organization, writing custom software for various Hughes organizations. I loved doing that work and assumed at the time I would “go permanent” in that organization after getting my masters degree. But one day in the Spring of 1971 as I approached the end of my work/study program, I was asked to help out a colleague who had become overwhelmed with work for a certain customer in Malibu.

I had never heard of the “Research Laboratories” and wasn’t aware we had such a facility in Hughes but it didn’t matter … I tagged along the next time Bobbi Peacock went up to the facility so I could learn a bit more about what she was doing up there and find out how I could help. During that visit I met the two HRL staff members Bobbi was working for, Dave Rensch and Art Chester. My first reaction was that they had VERY tiny offices but a fabulous view in a very beautiful building and location. Both staff members seemed very nice and friendly, and over the next few weeks I delivered a contour plotting program they could integrate into the laser propagation simulator Bobbi was writing. Something about me caught their interest and after learning I was still a “free agent” until I got my MS degree, they offered me a spot on the staff at Malibu so I could continue developing software for them. I eventually did accept their offer and began my career at HRL.

My first office at HRL in 1971 was right outside the “large conference room” doorway, and I was always interested to know what was going on in there. I quickly learned that seminars were given every Friday afternoon at 4 pm by guest speakers or local staff members on current research topics, and anyone could just drop in. Those were very well attended, often with standing room only and multiple people in the doorway straining to hear what the speaker was saying, while bobbing around trying to see the viewgraphs being projected. I also learned there was a regular Tuesday speaker named Richard Feynman who was giving a series of lectures. I was stunned to realize it was the same guy that I had heard about at Berkeley and briefly studied. At Berkeley I had just assumed Feynman was an “old guy” who had written a few books after a long career and was a venerable but inaccessible guy that mere mortals such as myself would never meet or be able to listen to.

But instead I encountered the reality … he was a relatively young high-energy guy who liked to use the water bottles outside the conference room as bongo drums while he waited for his session to begin, and who was very friendly and willing to talk once I said hello. When I discovered that there was no entry fee, and I didn’t need my supervisor’s permission or a formal application to get in, I began dropping into some of his lectures just to see what they were like. Each session would go the same way … the topic was always fascinating, and the “hook” that got him started into physics and the underlying mathematics was always very clear. But the outcome was also unfortunately consistent — around halfway through the lecture he would reach a depth I couldn’t follow anymore and I would have to bob up to the surface for air while he continued descending into the murky depths of science and math. I always envied people who had the background to follow him as he would shine his intellectual flashlight into the nooks and crannies of where technology had allowed us to go in understanding this world.

Alas, I eventually stopped going to his lectures, not because I wasn’t interested … but because the last half of the lecture was always useless to me. I then had the dilemma of either sitting there during the part of the lecture I didn’t understand (wasting my time) or walking out (which I felt was the ultimate disrespect to a presenter). Not being willing to do either, I had to stop attending. Then one day the lectures stopped and I never saw him again. But he left behind an indelible impression on me of the kind of passion it was possible to bring to your career or your calling, along with a sense of wonder and gratitude that I had found such a fascinating place to work as HRL.

Recollection of Richard Feynman by Art Chester

Charles, thank you for that beautiful reminiscence!

I had the pleasure of working as a teaching assistant at Caltech, teaching freshman physics students from those very red books. Feynman was very much a presence at Caltech [during my grad school days, 1961 to 1965]. He wrote those books by giving one year of freshman physics lectures, apparently spontaneously, right out of his head, during which Robert Leighton and other faculty members took copious notes and wrote them up to create the red books. The year I was T.A. was the year after Feynman had created the freshman physics course. That year he was teaching sophomore physics, which was turned into a series of similar books, again by Bob Leighton and colleagues.

I was interested in elementary particle theory at the time, and was courageous enough to seek out the master in his office to try out an idea on him. He was welcoming and indulgent to an ignorant new grad student as I explained how the masses and other properties of a wide range of particles could be assembled as arithmetic sums of component particles; then he patiently explained to me that just getting the properties right was not enough, we had to explain the dynamics of the particles, that is, how they interact with one another (scattering cross sections and the like). I went away with a glimmer of how hard the subject really was, and buoyed by the way he had welcomed me without a hint of annoyance, though I was obviously wet-behind-the-ears and had not taken the time to dig into the subject in detail.

You mention getting lost in the middle of his lectures. I had a slightly different reaction. Feynman always said, you don’t have to remember how to obtain a result – all you need to do is remember the result, because you can always think of several ways to derive it. So he would set out to explain some physical phenomenon such as clouds or something in biology, and skillfully weave together familiar notions and reasonable-sounding assumptions, massage them a little bit and presto! there was the desired result! Sitting there in the auditorium, I felt that I had been given a transcendent insight, a deep understanding of how the universe works. It took my breath away. This heady feeling persisted for about 45 seconds after I left the completed lecture, at which point I asked myself, hey, how did he do that, and what were the missing steps that he glossed over so easily? It was a joke-worthy Chinese dinner experience, fully satisfying at the moment, but quickly dissipating.

I eventually understood that there are many shortcuts that can be made to sound reasonable, and can be used to obtain a result. A brilliant person with deep knowledge instinctively (or perhaps, with lightning speed, rationally) knows which ones to use, and which ones will lead him astray. The actual proof of the propositions Feynman demonstrated so easily contained many opportunities to take a side branch that would never lead to the result, or even lead to a contrary result. His lectures were the Readers Digest version of very detailed subjects. No less brilliant for that reason, I am not criticizing. I am merely saying that his personal charisma and exceedingly rapid thinking made things look a lot easier than they were – until you left the room.

At Caltech I encountered a similar example of elegant corner-cutting: it was in a class on Mathematical Physics, not taught by Feynman but taught using similar techniques. In that class the prof (Jon Mathews) declared up front the shakiness of the proof; however, he said that because it gave you the right answers, it was a practical and expedient approach for a physicist doing a complicated analysis the first time through. Then before publishing the results, one would have to confirm the answer by taking the steps in more detail, or following a more justifiable path to the answer.

That sounds murky, so let me be clearer: sometimes Mathews would take equations that contained components which, if you stopped to evaluate them, would give an infinite result. After combining various infinities and canceling them out, he derived results that had no infinities in them, and which were useful ways to, for example, simplify or evaluate a complicated equation full of integral signs. Hiding behind the infinities were expressions that had not yet been taken to the infinite point, which could be validly manipulated; however, since our course was aimed at practical techniques for regular use, we usually did not go back and actually prove the propositions from the underlying math.

I thought that it was great that George Smith [HRL’s Director for many years] authorized weekly lectures by Feynman as a consultant to HRL. I think that the lectures migrated to some other Hughes facilities in their later years. I don’t know how they came to end, but I suspect that Feynman finished covering the topics of greatest interest to him and yielded to competing demands on his personal time. Many Hughes execs including George Smith and Mal Currie [later, CEO of Hughes Aircraft Company] were alumni and supporters of Caltech, so that might have helped install Feynman as a regular speaker at HRL. You might know that for a few years in the 60s Smith, Currie, and Harley Iams were co-directors of HRL.

Thank you for this trip down memory lane! Which I am happy to share with all of you.

Is Richard Feynman known to you as he was and is to physicists? Did any high-profile scientists, even those seen from afar, leave an imprint on your life?

Image Credit: Richard Feynman photo from Nano.gov, used under Nano.gov Creative Commons License

Comments

Richard Feynman – Personal Impressions — 6 Comments

  1. Great read Art ! Makes my Freshman course in Physics @ UT Austin while enrolled in Geology seem insignificant. Your post makes my appreciation of Physics even greater and know you have made significant contributions to the field !
    Joe

    • Thanks, Joe, I’m glad you enjoyed it! It was fun being teaching assistant at that time. I recall developing a lesson on the physics of billiard balls for the freshmen in my lab section. A subject which starts out looking simple and suddenly plunges into mystical depths when you try to include spin and friction. Some things are a lot easier to do than to explain. – Art

  2. I always shared the feeling that Art expresses about Feynman’s lectures, which is copied below.

    Feynman always said, you don’t have to remember how to obtain a result – all you need to do is remember the result, because you can always think of several ways to derive it. So he would set out to explain some physical phenomenon such as clouds or something in biology, and skillfully weave together familiar notions and reasonable-sounding assumptions, massage them a little bit and presto! there was the desired result! Sitting there in the auditorium, I felt that I had been given a transcendent insight, a deep understanding of how the universe works. It took my breath away. This heady feeling persisted for about 45 seconds after I left the completed lecture, at which point I asked myself, hey, how did he do that, and what were the missing steps that he glossed over so easily? It was a joke-worthy Chinese dinner experience, fully satisfying at the moment, but quickly dissipating.