On July 16th, 1945, a team of U.S. scientists based in Los Alamos, New Mexico, conducted what their leader, J. Robert Oppenheimer, had named the Trinity test. They were detonating a new kind of bomb, way out in the desert, a couple hundred miles from the secret lab at Los Alamos where they had created it. The U.S. president, Harry Truman, seemed to fully grasp the magnitude of this moment.
Harry TRUMAN: It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe.
Oppenheimer had put together a dream team of experienced physicists, many of them recent refugees from Nazi Germany. Also — playing a minor but important role — was a 24-year-old physicist from Queens, New York, named Richard Feynman. Years later, here’s how Feynman described watching the Trinity test.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: Okay. Time comes, and this tremendous flash so bright. And I see this purple splotch on the floor of the truck. And I says, “That ain’t it. That’s an after-image.” So I turn back up, and I see this white light changing into yellow and then into orange. The clouds form and then they disappear again; And then finally a big ball of orange that started to rise and billow a little bit and get a little black around the edges, and then you see it’s a big ball of smoke with flashes on the inside of the fire going out, the heat. All this took about one minute. Finally, after a about a minute and half, suddenly, there’s a tremendous noise: bang! And then rumbles, like thunder. And that’s what convinced me. Nobody had said a word during this whole minute, we’re all just watching quietly. But this sound released everybody, because the solidity of the sound at that distance meant that it really worked. The man who was standing next to me said, “What’s that?” I said, “That was the bomb.”
Yes, that was the bomb. Just a few weeks later, the U.S. dropped one of these new atomic bombs on Japan. President Truman:
TRUMAN: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb has more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T. With this bomb, we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction.
Hiroshima was destroyed; tens of thousands of Japanese were killed. Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second bomb on the port city of Nagasaki. Again, the carnage was extreme. Six days later, Japan surrendered, putting an end to World War II. The U.S. victory was of course welcome, but Richard Feynman was among those who wondered about the cost of the victory.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: My first reaction after I was finished with this thing was: it’s useless to make anything.
Feynman thought that with the existence of nuclear weapons, it was only a matter of time before we humans would wipe ourselves off the earth.
FEYNMAN: I remember being in New York with my mother in a restaurant right after, immediately after. I would see people building a bridge and I would say, “They don’t understand.” I really believed that it was senseless to make anything, because it would all be destroyed very soon anyway.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: He would take in a view, and he would automatically visualize destruction from a bomb.
That’s Michelle Feynman, his daughter.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: His entire being was permeated by his effort at the war, and I don’t think that it was a happy time at all. His father had died, his wife had died, he would look at people building things, and think “Why bother?”
For five years after the war, Feynman taught physics at Cornell University. He was depressed, and restless; he had a hard time engaging in his work — a problem he’d never had before. Winters in upstate New York were long and cold; he needed to get away.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: A friend of his said: “What are you doing this summer?” and he said: “Oh, I was going to go to South America.” And he said: “Fantastic, come to Brazil.” He had to learn Portuguese quickly.
That trip lasted six weeks. But Feynman returned shortly after, for his sabbatical year, to teach at the Brazilian Center for Research in Physics, in Rio. At least part of his salary was paid by the U.S. State Department. Feynman had grown up near the beach, in Far Rockaway, Queens, in New York City. The beaches in Rio were a little bit different from the beaches in Queens. More samba music, more sun, more fun. Feynman wrote a letter to his physicist friend Enrico Fermi: “I get lots of ideas at the beach,” he said. So when his sabbatical was over, Feynman happily left Cornell for good, and took a position at the California Institute of Technology.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: California was kind of a fresh start for him. He had open sky and sunny weather, and maybe because of his time in Los Alamos and really enjoying the rugged countryside, that probably set him on a path, that he knew he liked the West.
Caltech is in Pasadena, a picturesque and relatively old city just northeast of downtown Los Angeles. It’s still got flourishes of old-world wealth, and flourishes of California hippie too, with the Caltech nerd vibe snuggled comfortably between them. It seemed like a good idea for us to spend some time in Pasadena, to get a better feel for Richard Feynman.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: We will be driving by the house where I grew up. And then we’re going to the cemetery and we will see where my parents are.
Pasadena is known as the City of Roses; it hosts the annual Rose Parade! So we’ll hear about some Feynman roses:
John PRESKILL: At Caltech he was a hero right up to the end.
And some thorns:
Charles MANN: He was an old-fashioned sexist.
“The Curious, Brilliant, Vanishing Mr. Feynman.” Part two of our series, begins now.
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Part two, “The Brilliant Mr. Feynman.” Chapter Four: “Feynman the Scientist.”
Richard Feynman joined the Caltech faculty in 1950, and he stayed there until he died 38 years later. For most of that time, he wasn’t well-known to the wider public, but he was a bit of a celebrity in Pasadena. Especially among his fellow academics, he stood out for his wit, which had some sharp edges; for his bongo playing; also for the van he drove.
Seamus BLACKLEY: It’s a Dodge Tradesman van, and it’s the extended version. It gets horrifying gas mileage. It’s super loud. It puts out clouds and clouds of hellish hydrocarbons when it runs. And it’s incredibly long and uncomfortable to drive.
That is Seamus Blackley, who is best-known for having helped create the Xbox for Microsoft. He never met Richard Feynman but he’s been a fan since he was a teenager. Which is why today, he is the keeper of Feynman’s old van. We visited him at the garage in Pasadena where he keeps it.
BLACKLEY: So think of, like, a seventies plumber who painted his truck this horrible, two-tone beige. And that’s what Dick Feynman decided to buy when he got his Nobel Prize.
On the sides of the van are some painted patterns that have been mistaken for hieroglyphics and Native American symbols.
BLACKLEY: If you don’t know what they are, it looks like a homeless guy has drawn on the side of this van. Most people don’t give it a second look. But if you’re driving somewhere, and a physicist sees it, they freak out and run at you and, like, you almost kill them and stuff.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: So the van was a — so, context is my parents liked to camp. And not go to a campground, but go to kind of the road less traveled. You know, if you go to, like, a fork in the road and you see one side is kind of pristine and the other side looks treacherous, oh, we’ll go to the treacherous side. And at some point when I think I was in first grade or so, we got this cool van, and they got it all set up for camping. My mom was very careful and thoughtful about how things should work out. You know, there was a table that could be removed. The seats would go flat, so somebody could sleep there, and then my brother could sleep in the back. And then I had a hammock that was in the front and curtains, and so we were good to go. And then funny enough, they had this van decorated in a custom paint job, and they decided to put Feynman diagrams on it.
DUBNER: And what is a Feynman diagram?
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: So, symbols that my father came up with to express, I don’t know, light? I’m not sure. You’d have to talk to a physicist about that.
PRESKILL: I’m John Preskill. I am the Richard P. Feynman professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. So, picture this diagram. There are these two lines, both with arrows on them. And then there’s a line connecting the two. So it looks like one rung of a ladder. And the line going across is the wiggly line. That’s the photon that’s being emitted by one particle and absorbed by the other. Now, we could have more photons. So now add another rung to the ladder. Now we’ve got the one line with an arrow on it. Solid line, let’s say going up. And now another line with the arrow going down. That’s the electron and the positron. Now there are two rungs. There’s a wiggly line and then another wiggly line. And that’s another Feynman diagram. The electron and the positron can collide with one another, and that can give rise to particles of light, photons. But then those photons convert to other particles, like quarks and anti-quarks, and those interact with other particles, like gluons and so on. And to keep track of all those things that can happen, and how to quantitatively evaluate how all those different processes contribute to the total rate, that’s a pretty complicated problem. Feynman diagrams can help you organize that type of computation.
These visual simplifications made quantum electrodynamics easier to work with even for trained physicists. Here’s the science writer Charles C. Mann.
MANN: These are incredibly difficult and unwieldy for 99.999 percent of the human race, and that 0.001 percent that can work with them was Julian Schwinger.
Julian Schwinger and Richard Feynman had a lot in common. They were both born in 1918, both grew up in Jewish families in New York — Schwinger in Manhattan, Feynman in Queens — and they both became pioneers in quantum electrodynamics. Feynman’s mother liked to point out to her son just how smart this Schwinger boy was.
MANN: Schwinger was an extraordinarily brilliant guy — but brilliant in a different way. People had always talked about them as being competitive. It was clear when we spoke to Schwinger that he had that kind of barbed respect that you have for a worthy adversary. He clearly wasn’t all that fond of Feynman. Feynman also spoke about it and he said that he thought that people like us made a bit too much of their rivalry. And he said it was more like two people running a race. But it’s fundamentally a friendly competition because they’re both pushing each other.
In 1965, when Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, he shared it with Schwinger — as well as the Japanese physicist Sin-Itiro Tomonaga.
Christopher SYKES: I’d asked him to explain what he’d done to win the Nobel Prize, and he started talking about quantum electrodynamics. And of course, I really couldn’t understand this. I’m Christopher Sykes. I was a documentary filmmaker for many years for the BBC and Channel Four. I found myself at some point saying, “Was it worth a Nobel Prize?” Which did produce, I have to say, a really classic response.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: I don’t understand what it’s all about or what’s worth what. And 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 a Nobel Prize. I don’t like honors. I’m appreciated for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it, and I notice other physicists use my work, I don’t need anything else. I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, I don’t believe in honors.
SYKES: And that’s why we called the finished film The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: The story goes — like, the first call was, you know, 3 a.m. or something. And I’m sure that was very exciting. And then I think reality — you know, you put the phone down and then it started ringing with press and so forth. And then I think the reality of, Oh, I don’t really want all this. Then he said to a reporter, “Hey, time out. Off the record, can I ask, is it possible for me to — what’s the word — reject this?” And the reporter said, “No, no, that’s not something that’s going to happen.”
WOLFRAM: I mean, look, he was disdainful of all of these honorific types of things. I’m Stephen Wolfram, and I do science and technology. He was — I mean, I would probably go further than him and say: any field for which there is a prize that’s defined is a field that has already had its best days behind it. It’s a field that barely has a name that’s going to have the most fertile moment. I happened to get one of these MacArthur Awards in the very first batch of those things. Feynman took me aside and said: “Look, just don’t make this mean that you think people have big expectations for you.” He was almost like: prizes are a damaging thing to people, particularly early in their careers.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: One of the things that my father taught me besides physics was a disrespect for respectable, for certain kinds of things. For example, when I was a little boy, in a rotogravure — that’s the printed pictures in newspapers, first came out in The New York Times, and he’d open a picture, and there was a picture of the pope with everybody bowing in front of him. And he’d say, “Now, look at these humans. Here is one human standing here, and all these others are bowing. Now, what is the difference? This one is the pope and these are the ordinary people” — he hated the pope anyway. And he’d say, “The difference is epaulets.” Of course, not in the case of the pope, maybe it was a general. It was always the uniform, the position. “This man has the same human problems, he eats dinner like anybody else. He goes to the bathroom. He is a human being. Why are they all bowing to him? Only because of his name and his position, because of his uniform, not because of something he especially did.” He, by the way, was in the uniform business, so he knew what the difference was with a man with the uniform off and the uniform on. It’s the same man for him.
To be clear: Richard Feynman did not refuse or reject his Nobel Prize. He attended the ceremony in Stockholm, and by the looks of the many photographs in the archives at Caltech, he very much enjoyed himself. We visited those archives with his daughter Michelle. She came across something else that was interesting.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: So, I love this. Everything that, he was sort of like, “I don’t like honors,” and I, you know, “Can I return this prize?” All of that? This is so, like, it’s such a lovely, lovely thank you.
The paper she found is her father’s Nobel acceptance speech. Some background: Feynman had been outwardly cranky about the award, even complaining about the fact that he’d have to rent a tuxedo. But apparently he had a change of heart.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: “Your Majesty, your royal highnesses, ladies and gentlemen. The work I have done has already been adequately rewarded and recognized. Imagination reaches out repeatedly trying to achieve some higher level of understanding until suddenly I found myself momentarily alone before one new corner of nature’s pattern of beauty and true majesty revealed. That was my reward. Then, having fashioned tools to make access easier to the new level, I see these tools used by other men, straining their imaginations against further mysteries beyond. There are my votes of recognition. Then comes the prize, and a deluge of messages — from friends, from relatives, from students, from former teachers, from scientific colleagues, from total strangers. Formal commendations, silly jokes, parties, presents, a multitude of messages in a multitude of forms. But in each I saw the same two common elements. I saw in each joy, and I saw affection. You see, whatever modesty I may have had has been completely swept away in recent days. The prize was a signal to permit them to express and me to learn about their feelings. Each joy, though transient still, repeated in so many places, amounts to a considerable sum of human happiness. And each note of affection, released thus one upon another, has permitted me to realize a depth of love for my friends and acquaintances, which I had never felt so poignantly before. For this, I thank Alfred Nobel and the many who worked so hard to carry out his wishes in this particular way. And so, you Swedish people with your honors and your trumpets and your king — forgive me, for I understand at last, such things provide entrance to the heart. Used by a wise and peaceful people, they can generate good feeling, even love among men, even in lands far beyond your own. For that lesson, I thank you.”
Coming up: what was Feynman like as a professor?
PRESKILL: Not in the catalog. No grades. What was it? It was Feynman standing in front of the blackboard saying, “Ask me anything.”
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Chapter Five: “Feynman the Professor.”
The word most commonly attached to Richard Feynman would seem to be “genius.” That is the title of the definitive Feynman biography, published in 1992 by James Gleick. Feynman himself did not like the label. He maintained there was nothing exceptional about his intelligence. So how did he become a giant of theoretical physics? Here’s how Feynman put it in a BBC documentary called Fun to Imagine:
RICHARD FEYNMAN: You ask me if an ordinary person by studying hard would get to be able to imagine these things like I imagine. Of course! I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There’s no talent, a special miracle ability to understand quantum mechanics or a miracle ability to imagine electromagnetic fields that comes without practice and reading and learning and study. You take an ordinary person who’s willing to devote a great deal of time and study and work and thinking and mathematics, then he’s become a scientist.
The physicist John Preskill:
PRESKILL: Feynman officially taught an undergraduate class at Caltech only for two years. Those were captured by some now-famous books, called The Feynman Lectures on Physics. There are three Big Red Books. Feynman worked very hard on that. He thought very deeply about how to organize the material. And they’re rather extraordinary, I think. I didn’t really appreciate them until I was a more senior physicist. When he gave a talk, or a lecture, he was kind of mesmerizing, and really grabbed your attention.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: I have the privilege of calling your attention today to what is probably one of the most far-reaching generalizations of the human mind.
PRESKILL: And while he spoke, things would seem extraordinarily clear and obvious. And many people had the experience that then afterward, when you tried to reconstruct the arguments, you’d find it very difficult. Somehow he made it seem easy, but there were nuances that he made seem natural when he spoke of them. But then when you tried to follow the path again, were actually very subtle.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: And what is this law of gravitation? It is that every object in the universe attracts every other with a force proportional to the mass of each, and varying inversely as the square of the distance between them. If you like mathematics, you can write that same thing as an equation.
PRESKILL: The blackboard choreography would be very carefully thought out. They would end exactly on time. They had been prepared with great care. So he really put everything into it.
The filmmaker Christopher Sykes:
SYKES: I turned up at Caltech for this lecture, and I have to say it was extraordinary, because Feynman — I came in and there were about, I don’t know, 16 or 20 students all wearing shorts and trainers, with their feet up on the tables and stuff. And none of them were taking any notes. Feynman was lecturing. And I couldn’t, of course, understand anything. It was really high-level quantum physics. But towards the end, he looked up at the clock and he said, “Look, we’ve only got eight minutes left. And this particular problem we’re talking about,” he said, “there’s two ways of tackling it. One’s very elegant and clear and easy, and the other one is just incredibly messy.” He said, “But we’ve only got a little time left, so I’ll just deal with the incredibly messy one.” And I thought, “Well, this was great.”
PRESKILL: Although that was the only official undergraduate class that Feynman taught at Caltech, there was an informal class of which he taught for many years. It was not in the catalog. It was not documented anywhere. The freshman called it Physics X. It was intended especially for freshmen. And by word of mouth, it would become known that Feynman was going to be in a certain classroom at a certain time, and that you could come and interact with him. Not in the catalog. No grades. What was it? It was Feynman standing in front of the blackboard saying, “Ask me anything.” And there were rules. The rules were: don’t ask me about coursework. Don’t ask me how to do this problem in such and such a course. Don’t ask me about somebody’s paper — I haven’t read it, I don’t care about it. Don’t ask me about somebody’s theorem — I don’t know that either, I can’t tell you. Ask me about trying to understand something. Doesn’t matter what it is. Everything is interesting.
My colleague Kip Thorne remembers that when he was a freshman, that must have been around 1958, he heard the rumor, he went to the rumored room at the rumored time, and Feynman was there. And he says, “Okay, what do you want to talk about today?” And somebody says, “Oh, let’s talk about waves on Mars.” Where that came from, I have no idea. So he starts to talk about waves on Mars. “Well, let’s say there’s not really water on Mars, but let’s suppose there is, maybe there were oceans before. But the gravity is different than Earth. So that means water waves will propagate at a different speed.” And he worked that out. “But another thing, the atmosphere is thinner, so there’s less wind. And that’s not going to work up such high waves blowing across the surface of the water. How high will the waves be?” And he worked that out. And Kip came away from this enormously inspired. You know, that you can just look at nature and you ask questions and you can calculate answers.
BLACKLEY: I don’t think Feynman was trying to teach students who were not going to understand what he was saying. He wasn’t trying to reach out in an inclusive way and elevate everyone. Caltech is very hard on their undergraduates, right? There’s, like, a Lord of the Flies f***ing thing going on. In the ’60s it was even worse. It’s a cultural thing that Caltech struggles with to this day. And those lectures are built for those people who are going to go somewhere. And those were the people that Feynman was interested in. I don’t mean to make him out to be such a prick, but I think that he was really interested in the really bright students who asked really bright questions and got him thinking about stuff. Now, that said, he obviously spent a huge amount of time in his career communicating ideas in a very clear way to general audiences. But I think, those are two separate things.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: Because of the success of science, there is a kind of a pseudoscience that — social science is an example of a science which is not a science. They follow the forms, you gather data and you do so and so on and so forth, but they don’t get any laws, they haven’t found out anything. Maybe someday they will, but it’s not very well-developed. But what happens is, on an even more mundane level, we get experts on everything, that sound like they’re sort of scientific. There’s all kinds of myths and pseudoscience all over the place.
WOLFRAM: His distaste for social science came from the fact that it just is not a bedrock kind of field. I’m sure if he was talking about that or about economics or something like that, he would say: “What is this? Is it something where you have axioms for how people work, and then you’re trying to figure out the consequences?” That’s kind of more like the way he was doing physics. There are these underlying laws of physics, and then we’re working out their consequences.
PRESKILL: Well, at Caltech he was a hero right up to the end. Admired by his colleagues and by the students. I don’t know who worshiped him more. And that he was an extraordinary person and thinker was appreciated. Now, he was a bit of a narcissist. You know, he was a showoff. He did it in a way which maybe irritated some people, which was also charming. And it’s not like he tried to hide it. You know, he thought pretty highly of himself.
Lisa RANDALL: I mean, he did want to have quirks and to have stories about him. You know, he really wanted to create this persona. I’m Lisa Randall, and I am a physicist, professor at Harvard. I do theoretical particle physics and cosmology. This sounds kind of obnoxious, but if you’re smart enough to do particle physics, you’re probably smart enough to do other jobs where you make a lot more money. You get a lot more prestige in other ways. So sort of your currency is how important you’re considered and what you’ve accomplished, and what people think of you. So, for some people that’s more important than others. He’s a born performer. He clearly liked the adulation.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: You know, I think he was a decent guy. And what was really interesting is to read these pages and pages sometimes, of letters that people wrote.
That’s Michelle Feynman again:
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: The letter is, “Hello, my name is Gary Virship. At the present time, I am a junior at U.C. Berkeley and I’m majoring in physics. I would be interested in hearing your views on the present fields of research in physics. As of now, I’m interested in either plasma, space, or low-temperature physics. I would appreciate it very much if you could send me some information on your current research efforts. My address in Berkeley is —.” All right, so then he says, “I’m sorry, but neither you nor I have the time that would take for me to expound my views on the research being done in physics. And I am interested in all fields.” I mean, it’s honest! I don’t think he’s being mean. It’s just, “I’m going to tell you like it is. You ask me, I’m going to tell you I don’t have time to solve all your problems and, just F.Y.I., I’m interested in everything.” He didn’t have a lot of judgment with people, you know. So he went to a topless bar and he liked watching the girls, and he liked drawing them. And, you know, he would have conversations. And at some point people were trying to shut the place down because, I don’t know, they’d had enough of it or something. And so he showed up in court and said, “No, no, this is a fine place. I go here all the time. Everything’s above-board.” And it could have been also true that the neighbors were right about all of their concerns, because ultimately the place did shut down. My point is that he had his own moral compass, which he was very strongly committed to. We had a lot of artist friends that I think were incredibly attractive to him because they were just free thinkers.
Alan ZORTHIAN: I grew up right here. Richard Feynman would come in and sit right here, and my dad would sit over there. Feynman was an ordinary dude. You’d meet him, you would have thought he was, like, some dude off the street of New York. My name is Alan Zorthian, and I am an architect. My dad was Jirayr Zorthian. He was an artist. That was his main profession, he was very good at it. My father met Richard P. Feynman in the mid-’50s, when Feynman was playing bongos at a party. And my dad needed to make a big splash, so he was dancing around, and they became good friends. The friendship continued until Richard’s death in 1988, and they were very close.
The Zorthian ranch is in the hills above Pasadena; the land is steep and scrubby — it looks a lot like where they used to shoot M*A*S*H, the old TV show with Alan Alda, which is actually not far away. The ranch itself is a sprawl of farm animals and shaggy dogs, sculptures and mosaics, and buildings quite a bit past their prime. In its heyday, when Jirayr Zorthian was holding court, the ranch was known for its bohemian vibes and wild parties. Richard Feynman spent a lot of time up here; he and Zorthian had a special relationship.
ZORTHIAN: You know, they would argue. They liked to express their opinions. One of the things they were talking about was: “You scientists don’t appreciate beauty.” It’s a friendly-type of argument. It went ’till very late in the evening. And then he went home and he started thinking about it, and he called my dad up and said: “Well, look, I think the problem is I don’t understand what you do and you don’t understand what I do. So why don’t we educate each other?” And then they started doing this thing, and they were serious, they did it. They decided every — I don’t remember, every other Sunday, I think it was — Feynman would come up — my dad did the first one, he was going to teach Feynman how to draw, because Feynman was interested in art, so he came up. He said my dad was a good teacher: my dad was a good teacher, he was positive and stuff. So he started to learn to draw and he eventually became very good. And then, he tried to teach my dad something about physics, and my dad didn’t learn a damn thing. Feynman liked the idea that my dad could get women to pose nude, too, so my dad would send him models, and stuff like that.
When you read Feynman’s own books, you see that he was completely enamored with women. He tells story after story of chasing women in ways that ranged from comic to cruel. In the beginning, he’d been madly in love with Arline, his first wife; but she died from tuberculosis in her 20s, and it’s unclear if he ever fully recovered from that. He wrote her a love letter two years after she died. “I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) … But only you are left to me. My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead. P.S.: Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.” He did get remarried, to Mary Louise Bell, whom he met while teaching at Cornell. They were, by all accounts, a horrible match. The marriage lasted just four years. In their divorce, Bell claimed that she was subjected to a variety of cruelties, including violence. For years, Feynman had cultivated a reputation as a womanizer of the worst sort; James Gleick, in his book Genius, reports that while he was teaching at Cornell, Feynman slept with undergraduates and the wives of graduate students. Here’s Charles Mann:
MANN: He was an old-fashioned sexist. Every woman that we ever talked to about this would say this. But they would also say things — I know a female physicist, who — the way she put it was this: Feynman would do these sexist things, like, say, “Would you give me a cup of coffee?” You know, these classic sexist tropes. But, she said, I never met a person who helped me understand the physics better. She said, “Ultimately I’m a physicist and that’s what counts. Yes, this was annoying. Incredibly annoying. I wanted to slap him. But when he talked to me about physics, I loved it.”
RANDALL: When I was entering the field, I went out of my way to learn the physics of people, and to learn as little about their personality as possible. Because I have to say, many times when I found out about the people, I was disappointed. I just felt like I didn’t want to know it. I just want to focus on the physics itself. Look, you can try to justify it, but the fact is, he was proud enough that it becomes the centerpiece of his book. I do think we give people a free pass for things they do to women in ways that we don’t give them a free pass in things that happen to other people. I mean, look, I’ve been to Caltech recently. I really like being there. It’s really fun. But when I took the PSAT, I did very well, and I was sent a pamphlet that said, literally, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like Caltech?” And I thought, “Wow, that is one place I do not want to go.” You know, it’s very interesting in this day and age because growing up in the age of the women’s movement, a lot of other movements, a lot of it was about not focusing on your identity, being just considered like anyone else. And today’s identity politics is very much the opposite. So, it’s very confusing.
Coming up: how much did Richard Feynman come to regret his reputation?
LEIGHTON: Feynman got the obituary from the L.A. Times. He was able to read his own obituary.
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Chapter Six: “Feynman the Parent.”
Michelle Feynman still lives in Pasadena, not far from the house where she grew up.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: As a shy seven- or eight-year-old, I didn’t relish the idea of telling a friend, “No, I don’t really want to spend the night at your house.” And so somehow my dad and I had this conversation and he said, “Well, I got an idea. We’ll have a code. If you say, ‘So-and-so wants to know if I can spend the night,’ I’ll say, ‘No, I’m sorry, not tonight.’ And then I’ll be the bad guy. And if you say, ‘Is it all right?’” or, if I ask with myself as the first — you know, “I’m wondering if I can, is it okay if I spend the night,” something like that, “then I’ll give you an honest answer, and maybe it’s yes maybe it’s no. But at least we know where we are.” And honestly, he nailed it every single time.
We’re speaking with Michelle in the garden of the hotel in Pasadena where the Freakonomics Radio crew is staying. We chose this hotel, the Huntington, because it’s where Michelle’s parents were married. On September 24 of 1960, Richard Feynman took Gweneth Howarth to be his third wife. She was from West Yorkshire, England. How did they meet?
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: They met on a beach in Switzerland. Because she had aspirations to travel the world, and she thought a fun way — she liked children, and a fun way would be to be an au pair and to live in people’s houses and take care of their children and see the world. So she went to France, and then to Switzerland, and met my dad. I think he was there for a conference, and apparently he said kind of a joke, like, “Oh, you could come to California and take care of me.” And then the next day he saw her again and said, “You know, that wasn’t — I’m sorry, that was out of line.” And she said, “No, no, I’ll come to California. I’d love to. I’d love to come to America, and that sounds great.” They rented a house, completely a platonic relationship. He was in the front of the house, she was in the back, I guess. At some point, he realized that he was falling in love with her, and he thought, “No, no, too soon, too fast, too impulsive.” So he went to a calendar and he paged forward about six months and he marked the date on the calendar and said, “If I still feel the same way on this date, I will ask her to marry me.” The Pasadena Freeway is right near here. The story is they hopped on the freeway right after the wedding, and they ran out of gas. I mean, it’s a good litmus test for a relationship, you know, “How is this going to work?” And to my mom’s credit, she just laughed and, “Okay, I guess this is how it’s going to go.” And they were, you know, they were in it.
The Feynmans had two children: Michelle, whom they adopted in 1968; and Carl, who was born to the couple six years earlier. Today, Carl is a computer scientist living near Boston.
CARL FEYNMAN: When I was 17, I didn’t get along with my parents great. Which was basically the period when I was deciding where to go for college. I wanted to go to one of the schools where they taught A.I., and that was M.I.T., Carnegie Mellon, or Stanford. M.I.T. was my first choice and M.I.T. was the furthest one away. It was on the other side of the country. So I wanted to get away from my parents and, you know, be an independent, far-away guy, so I moved there. I almost immediately regretted it, being so far away, because my relations with my parents were then improved. But by then, I was committed. And by the time I graduated, I had decided that I loved Boston. So I stayed out here. He was a nice man who would tell you how the world worked. We’d go for walks after dinner. We’d go out on the streets or at the nearby golf course. And we’d talk about everything under the sun. He’d tell me wonderful stories about his time at the Manhattan Project. You know, when I was a teenager, he would repair his car a lot. He would always dive right in. He didn’t know anything about car repair. So, he would dive right in, and then he’d sit back and look at it with his hand on his chin and theorize, and then dive back in again and, you know, usually make things worse. He did take me to one football game, and afterwards he said, “So what did you think?” And I said, “I really didn’t like that. I don’t think I want to go to any more football games.” And he was like, “Oh, thank God.” I mean, you know, I was very into science. I read science fiction. I drew lots of pictures of spaceships. I was that kind of kid. And he thought that was great, and took me to Hughes Aircraft to see their rocket factory, and stuff like that. It was great as a little kid. I was in that world. I wanted to be one of those cool people with the short-sleeve white shirts and the black ties. Yeah, we had a rocket scientist living across the street.
Ralph LEIGHTON: Well, he enjoyed being a father. And so, you know, we have Gweneth to thank for that, because she gave him a stable family life.
That is Ralph Leighton. He’s a longtime family friend who was Feynman’s writing partner and drumming partner.
LEIGHTON: Carl and Michelle were delights to him, and he learned that each of them liked different things about him. So Carl responded to certain things, and Michelle responded to other things. I could just see the happiness and fun when I came over for my Wednesday evening proper meal. I was a stay-at-home dad, and a lot of Feynman’s philosophy came out with our kids. You know, just one little saying which I kept thinking of is, don’t take advantage of your position. So you never say, “Because I said so.” It’s better to have that philosophy of ignorance, like, “Oh, yeah, that’s an interesting question. I don’t know the answer to that. Let’s go find out.”
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: So, he was on the curriculum commission. And so they all looked at textbooks and decided that, you know, this one should be approved and this one should not. My mom talked about how passionate he was about it. She said he would be in the basement and it was like an explosion from down below because he would just be incensed by the inane math problems. Like, you know, “Johnny sees a star of 3,000 degrees. He sees another star of 6,000 degrees. What’s the total number” — when would you ever need to know any of that in nature? You just wouldn’t.
CARL FEYNMAN: But he had a collection of good math textbooks. So I would go down there to study and just, you know, read these math textbooks for high schoolers when I was a little kid. So I learned a lot of math that way.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: When I was doing math in high school, my dad would look over my shoulder and say, “Oh, here, like, oh, hang on, I got a good way you could do that. I can think of five ways and let me just show you one.” And so I would take it to school and go, “Check this out.” And the teacher did not share my enthusiasm. And said, “Well, no. I mean, yes, you got the right answer. But no, that’s not what we’re doing here.” And so at a certain point, my dad had enough, and went to go see the teacher. And I don’t think the teacher knew who he was. My dad was really, really trying to play it cool and just be sort of, you know, “I’m Michelle’s dad.” And at some point, the guy said something like, “You should try reading a math book.” And I can just imagine my dad sort of holding it all in, and then at that point, he just couldn’t. He just pulled himself up and said, “Sir, I have written math books.” And then I think the counselor told the teacher who my dad was. And the next day, I was not in that class anymore.
CARL FEYNMAN: He didn’t mind being a confused old man. We’d be in a restaurant and he’d look at the menu and get out his glasses and be confused in front of the waiter, and take a long time, “And now the confused, old man will look through the menu,” you know, he didn’t mind being in that. And, you know, at other times — well, he did some pretty impressive stuff. And he wasn’t afraid to say, “Yeah, I did some pretty impressive stuff.”
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: When my brother went to M.I.T., he met a like-minded person, Danny Hillis. Danny and Cheryl Handler were starting a company called Thinking Machines.
CARL FEYNMAN: I worked with him later, at Thinking Machines Corporation. And he was clearly very into computation by that point. Very interested. All over it.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: There are some things that a computer does much better than a human. And you’d better remember that if you’re trying to compare machines to humans.
CARL FEYNMAN: He felt like physics were kind of tapped out, that he was past the point of making contributions because both he had changed and the field had changed. And so he was more interested in computing. The machine we were building was called the Connection Machine. It’s a very strange computer. And he figured out a way to get it to do cosines and logarithms and other transcendental functions. It was very poor at multiplication, was very good at additions and shuffling bits around. And he figured out a way to do transcendental functions without multiplication, just by using the patterns of the bits to do something extremely clever, whose details I no longer remember.
In 1978, Feynman was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. For the next decade, he had multiple treatments, including surgeries. It was suggested that his cancer may have been caused by exposure to nuclear radiation at Los Alamos. Feynman refused to consider that possibility. Ralph Leighton:
LEIGHTON: I got a call from the L.A. Times wondering if he was near death. And I said, “Well, he’s for the moment doing pretty well, but have you written up his obituary already?” And they said yes. And I said “Oh, wow. Would you mind sending it? Could I show it to the chief?” And the guy said, “Okay, but I’m not changing a word of it.” And so Feynman got the obituary from the L.A. Times. He was able to read his own obituary. You can find it online. And in the first paragraph or second paragraph, he mentioned he had this reputation for skirt-chasing, or some kind of description of that. And Feynman shook his head and was pretty sad that that would be something mentioned so soon, because I think he kind of played it up just to look like, you know, scientists aren’t all nerds and can’t get anywhere and whatever. I think there was a lot of sort of image-making. And then he realized it kind of went too far, but he couldn’t change it because the L.A. Times guy said, “My condition, is I’m not changing a word.”
A few months later, in February of 1988, Feynman died with his family close by. Here were his last words: “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”
LEIGHTON: You know, there was something on a blackboard right after he died, they preserved the blackboard for a while, took pictures, and it said, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” He liked to construct things from the ground up. That’s basically it.
By this time, Gweneth Feynman was also sick with cancer.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: So, this is Mountain View Cemetery where my parents bought a plot. They were sick fairly early in my life. They took the whole responsibility of all of that very seriously. And they did their will, and they bought a plot where they liked the surroundings and thought this was a beautiful area. Yep. “In loving memory.” And then it says “Feynman, Richard P. and Gwyneth M.” And he has the dates 1918 to 1988 and she’s 1934 to 1989. You know, sooner or later, everyone’s going to lose their parents. I’m lucky because there’s all this material that’s — I can just — what did his voice sound like? Let me listen to it. You know, I have those recordings. When I read his books, I can hear his voice again.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: Well there’s a lot of stories about it, but it’s getting late, so we’ll let it go at that.
Next time, on Part Three, “The Vanishing Mr. Feynman”:
Debbie HARLOW: I said, “Have you ever tried psilocybin mushrooms?” And he said, “no.” And I asked, “Would you like to?”
Feynman quit drinking when he was young, and as much as he was interested in different states of consciousness, he didn’t want to do drugs out of fear it would damage his favorite toy — his brain. But when he knew the end was near, he took a trip or two. We’ll hear about that; and: what would Feynman think about how science works today?
Alan ALDA: One of the sad things that’s happened is that the search for truth has become politicized.
That’s next time on the show. Until then, take care of yourself — and, if you can, someone else too.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Zack Lapinski. Special thanks to Richard Thai and Elisa Piccio from the Caltech archives; to Christopher Sykes and the BBC for the audio from their Feynman documentaries; to the Library and University Archives at the University of California Santa Barbara for their recording of Feynman’s “Los Alamos from Below” lecture; to the Esalen Institute for audio from Feynman’s “Tiny Machines” talk; to James Gleick, author of the Feynman biography Genius; and to Nicolas Osorio and Music Mind for recording help in Pasadena. Our staff also includes Alina Kulman, Eleanor Osborne, Elsa Hernandez, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Jasmin Klinger, Jeremy Johnston, Julie Kanfer, Lyric Bowditch, Morgan Levey, Neal Carruth, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Ryan Kelley, and Sarah Lilley. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music you’ve been hearing was composed especially for this series by Luis Guerra.
- Seamus Blackley, video game designer and creator of the Xbox.
- Carl Feynman, computer scientist and son of Richard Feynman.
- Michelle Feynman, photographer and daughter of Richard Feynman.
- Ralph Leighton, biographer and film producer.
- Charles Mann, science journalist and author.
- John Preskill, professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology.
- Lisa Randall, professor of theoretical particle physics and cosmology at Harvard University.
- Christopher Sykes, documentary filmmaker.
- Stephen Wolfram, founder and C.E.O. of Wolfram Research; creator of Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha, and the Wolfram Language.
- Alan Zorthian, architect.
- “Love After Life: Nobel-Winning Physicist Richard Feynman’s Extraordinary Letter to His Departed Wife,” by Maria Popova (The Marginalian, 2017).
- Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, by Lawrence M. Krauss (2011).
- The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman (1999).
- Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick (1992).
- “G. Feynman; Landscape Expert, Physicist’s Widow,” (Los Angeles Times, 1990).
- “Nobel Physicist R. P. Feynman of Caltech Dies,” by Lee Dye (Los Angeles Times, 1988).
- “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” by Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton (1988).
- The Second Creation: Makers of the Revolution in Twentieth-century Physics, by Robert Crease and Charles Mann (1986).
- Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, by Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton (1985).
- Fun to Imagine, BBC docuseries (1983).
- “Richard P. Feynman: Nobel Prize Winner,” by Tim Hendrickson, Stuart Galley, and Fred Lamb (Engineering and Science, 1965).
- F.B.I. files on Richard Feynman.
- “The Curious Mr. Feynman,” by Freakonomics Radio (2024).