MICHELLE FEYNMAN: So, a little scrap of paper in my dad’s writing. He had a weird way of working, where he would just write on, like — if he ran out of paper or something, he would grab a Kleenex box or write on the corners of junk mail, or wherever there was clear space.
That is Michelle Feynman. Her father is the late Richard Feynman, a theoretical physicist who taught for decades at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena. And that’s where we are today, in a climate-controlled, underground archive, going through her father’s files. Feynman led an unusual — and unusually eventful — life. While he was still in graduate school, he was recruited to join the Manhattan Project, the U.S. military’s secret program to build an atomic bomb. Toward the end of his life, he was asked to join a presidential commission to investigate the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle. NASA had launched the Challenger from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a cold January day in 1986. It was in the air only 73 seconds before it exploded, on live TV; all seven crew members were killed, including a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: I remember being in History, and we didn’t take our test, and they said that a terrible thing had happened. And then I came home, and my parents, who rarely had the television on, were in front of the television. They seemed pretty distraught by the whole thing. And then I guess he got a call, inviting him to be part of the Commission.
This commission was ordered by President Ronald Reagan. Feynman’s wife, Gweneth, urged her husband to accept the invitation. He was disinclined. Physics, he loved; solving theoretical mysteries, he loved; it was the politics he hated. Feynman was now 67 years old, and had been sick for a while with cancer. Sometimes he was surprised he was still alive — and grateful — but the idea of spending months in Washington seemed worse than death. President Reagan had asked former secretary of state William Rogers to run the Commission. “Whatever you do,” Reagan told him, “don’t embarrass NASA.” As for Richard Feynman: embarrassment wasn’t something that he really worried about.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: I think it was really ultimately my mom who said, “Okay, let’s be honest. If you don’t do it, they’ll all be doing the same thing.” And if he did it, there would be this one other person sort of buzzing around and trying to really find out what happened.
Feynman thought about it for a while. Finally, he accepted. Here’s how he put it to his wife: “Okay, I am going to commit suicide for six months.” But once he took the assignment he attacked it, visiting engineers across the country to learn everything he could about how the space shuttle worked. Feynman wasn’t a rocket scientist, but he had helped build the atomic bomb at Los Alamos; and he had won a Nobel Prize, for his work in quantum electrodynamics. Among his physicist peers, he was thought of as a wizard: Freeman Dyson said that Feynman had “the most original mind of his generation.” He was also perhaps the world’s most famous living scientist. So yes, Richard Feynman was a logical choice to serve on this Presidential commission, but he was also a risky choice.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: I do know that there was somebody on the commission that he didn’t like, or he thought the person didn’t like him. And there were disagreements.
Feynman grew concerned that this “investigation” would be more of a show trial — political propaganda meant to save face. The U.S. was still fighting a cold war with Russia, and the American space program was a key asset. Most of the 12 members of the Commission were political or military appointees; Feynman worried that Chairman Rogers would try to sideline him, maybe even withhold information. But having spent a lifetime teaching physics at Caltech, Feynman had no shortage of former students now working for NASA and at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, which is at Caltech, just down the road from Feynman’s archives, where we are today.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: So, I’m wondering what this is. Like, who gave him this piece of paper? And then he made notes on it. “Space shuttle operations entail a significant degree of risk,” and then that’s circled. And then, “What do you think”? Oh, “What do you think the magnitude of the risk is?”
The magnitude of the risk, Feynman learned, varied greatly — depending on who you asked. NASA management had put the risk of a shuttle disaster at around 1 in 100,000. Feynman thought this was absurd. This implied, he later wrote, that “[you] could put a Shuttle up [every] day for 300 years expecting to lose only one.” The engineers at NASA — the people responsible for actually building, and knowing the thing — they put the risk of a disaster at 1 in 100. The engineers, for all their technical ability — they knew this was still a dangerous enterprise! Feynman wrote: “What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery?”
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: This section describes possible shuttle accidents leading to catastrophic failure. And then he’s got some notes in the margins.
In Washington, the Commission began to interview witnesses. Feynman didn’t think Chairman Rogers was trying very hard to get to the true cause of the explosion. So Feynman began asking questions — sharp, unrelenting questions. Questions about the science. During a break, Chairman Rogers was overheard, in the men’s room, complaining to the astronaut Neil Armstrong, who also sat on the Commission. He said: “Feynman is becoming a real pain in the ass.” Feynman, known in these archival documents as R.P.F., felt the investigation was becoming a whitewash.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: Right. “R.P.F. calls Graham again. ‘Do something. I feel frustrated and miserable.’”
Serving on the commission had been as dreadful an experience as Feynman had feared. But he kept digging. By now he had come to believe that the Challenger exploded because of the failure of what are called O-rings — small, circular seals designed to prevent fluid or air from leaking during a mechanical process. The solid-rocket boosters on the Challenger contained O-rings that were meant to expand and contract as needed; they were made from a synthetic rubber called Viton. It had been suggested to Feynman that the O-rings might fail under certain weather conditions.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: “Kutyna calls R.P.F. after working on his car in D.C. winter cold, and notes that O-rings are not very flexible in cold weather. Could that have been a factor, since it was very cold on the day of the launch? R.P.F.: ‘Sounds like a good possibility.'”
The day of the launch had been cold. Cold enough that some of the engineers were worried. But not cold enough for NASA to scrap the launch. They had already had to do that a couple times. Looking back, it appears that on this day, NASA leadership was in the grips of what is called “go fever.” So, go they did:
NBC NEWS: It was a bitter cold but sparkling, clear morning at Cape Canaveral. There was a sense of relief that the much-delayed flight was finally underway.
CNN TAPE: Looks like a couple of the solid rocket boosters blew away from the side of the shuttle in an explosion. We have a report from the flight-dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. We are looking at, uh, checking with the recovery forces to see what can be done at this point.
Richard Feynman was a patriot; he loved NASA, he loved adventure and exploration; he even loved risk-taking — as long as the risk had been properly calculated. What he hated was any attempt to paper over the truth; as a scientist, all he wanted was to find out true things. Here are some other things he hated: hypocrisy, B.S., and the use of unscientific thinking to make important decisions. And that’s where he felt the Rogers Commission had landed. Ever since working on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, Feynman had known that scientists and generals don’t always mix well. So, he now decided to pull a stunt. This was very much in character for Feynman; he had a brand of intelligence that could tip into the obnoxious. At Los Alamos, he became famous for cracking safes. As a kid, he had discovered that the radio quiz show he listened to with his family played earlier on a different station — so he would listen to the early version in his bedroom, and then magically know all the answers when they listened together, downstairs. But this stunt, on a Presidential commission investigating a national tragedy, would be in public, on television. Let’s get back to those notes in the archive.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: Next morning, Feynman in suit and tie gets into taxi. “Take me to a hardware store.” “But we’re in downtown Washington, sir. The Capitol is over there, the White House over there, there’s no hardware store around here.” The driver remembers one a few miles away and takes R.P.F. to it. They wait until it opens at 8:30. C-clamps seem to be too big, but R.P.F. buys one anyway. Also buys screwdriver and wrench to get model apart.
His idea was simple: he would dunk a model of the shuttle’s O-ring assembly in a glass of ice water, let it get down to the temperature it had been when the Challenger was launched from Cape Canaveral, and then see how the O-rings responded. It was the kind of thing a good science teacher might show his students, to demonstrate what’s called thermal hysteresis.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: In public hearing, no ice water. R.P.F. asks for some, and there is a big delay. Page thought R.P.F. wanted ice water for everyone. Several good opportunities are missed. Finally, ice water comes.
NEWS ANNOUNCER: Commission member Richard Feynman, after examining the O-ring, had a surprise.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: I took this stuff that I got out of your seal, and I put it in ice water. And I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while, and then undo it, it maintains — it doesn’t stretch back. It stays the same dimension. In other words, for a few seconds at least, and more seconds than that, there’s no resilience in this particular material when it’s at a temperature of 32 degrees. I believe that has some significance for our problem.
“I believe that has some significance for our problem.” Feynman’s TV stunt, with the O-rings and the ice water, became the defining moment of the Challenger inquiry.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: And it’s just like, it’s just such a mic drop, you know? It’s done with so much understated showmanship. It’s just great, it’s just great.
It would later be revealed that NASA had known about the O-ring problem, but had downplayed the risks. The Rogers Commission, in its published report, went easy on NASA, as President Reagan had asked. But the report did include an appendix written by Richard Feynman. He didn’t go easy on NASA. Here is his final sentence: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
For Richard Feynman, Nature was everything. He saw the natural universe as the greatest puzzle ever created; understanding and explaining it was what drove him to be a scientist. He’d been that way as a kid, in Far Rockaway, Queens, on the ocean’s edge of New York City. It’s true that he was gifted mathematically, but his real superpowers were curiosity and playfulness. He wanted to know how everything worked: bubbles, rainbows; ocean waves and brain waves; consciousness and dreaming; he wondered about the inner workings of an atom and the outer edges of the known universe. He had a long parade of deep obsessions: Mayan hieroglyphics, the behavior of ants, playing the bongos! For a serious scientist, bongo-playing went against type; for him, it was perfectly on-brand. Feynman let himself get deeply interested in the things that interested him, and he was happy to ignore the rest. Once he was interested, there was no question Feynman was afraid to ask. But he didn’t suffer fools, and he thought there were a lot of fools in the world, people who knew the name of things without understanding how the thing worked, as Feynman liked to say.
Whether he meant to or not, Richard Feynman created a sort of blueprint for how to lead a life of honest inquiry. Bill Gates once called Feynman “the best teacher I never had” — and over the years, I’ve come to realize the same may be true for me. I’ve always loved reading Feynman, and reading about him. Some of the questions I ask when I interview people for this show are stolen from Feynman. Steve Levitt, my Freakonomics friend and co-author, is also a Feynman nut, and if you look at Levitt’s economic research, you see a lot of Feynman beneath the surface — the way he’ll come at a problem with a child-like curiosity and intensity — and a willingness to build an understanding from the ground up. Feynman appreciated that the world is complex, and that it’s better to know for sure that one small thing is true rather than make grand claims that can’t be verified. And there’s one more thing to love about Richard Feynman: he was always willing to speak truth to power. We saw this during the Challenger investigation; we saw it back at Los Alamos, when the much more experienced physicists who were running the project realized that the aggressive kid with the Queens accent was always shouting down what he called “lousy ideas,” and he was usually right.
It strikes me there are a lot of lousy ideas floating around these days — but there aren’t many people who are both willing and able to shout them down. And by “able,” I mean taking apart a bad argument with the rigor of a scientist and the patience of a teacher. It’s the role filled by what we used to call “public intellectuals” — but, to be clear, Feynman would have hated that label. He didn’t really think of himself as an intellectual, and as much as he loved adventure and storytelling, he didn’t have much use for public attention. Feynman was of course not a perfect person; he has been called out for behavior that was selfish and sometimes cruel, especially toward women. Still, I’ve been surprised to find just how much Feynman has faded from public view. I know that a lot of time has passed, and that our culture has changed. But sometimes when I’m giving a talk, I’ll mention something Feynman said or did, and I get a lot of blank stares — and not just from young people. So I got to thinking: maybe it’s time to do something about this. Maybe it’s time to get some more Feynman in our lives — including mine! Because one thing I’ve learned from Feynman is that it’s a wonderful thing to be interested in the things that interest you. And if you want to know — I’m probably not much more interested in theoretical physics than you are. But it turns out I am eternally interested in Richard Feynman.
So, today on Freakonomics Radio, we begin a series that we’ve been excited about for a long time. We will hear from Feynman family and friends.
Ralph LEIGHTON: So many crazy things really did happen to him.
We’ll hear from physicists.
Helen CZERSKI: He was a brilliant theoretical physicist. But what really made him stand out was his humanity.
And we’ll hear from Feynman himself.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: So I turned out to be a tremendous genius to them. I was a god coming down from the sky, you know!
I’m glad you’re joining us today, as we set off in search of the Curious, Brilliant, Vanishing Mr. Feynman.
* * *
Part One, “The Curious Mr. Feynman.” Chapter One: “Knowing the Name of Something.”
DUBNER: Okay, so let’s start. Ralph, just say your name and what you do.
LEIGHTON: I’m Ralph Leighton, and I’m not sure what I do. I guess the most consistent thing is that I was a teacher in the Pasadena school district for about a dozen years. And then when I fell in with Richard Feynman, and hearing his stories, and getting them out to the world, that helped me branch out and do other things.
Ralph Leighton is now in his 70s; he was in his teens when he started hanging out with Feynman, who was a colleague of his father’s. Ralph would become a sidekick to Feynman: he rode shotgun on adventures, and misadventures; he became Feynman’s writing partner and, perhaps most important, his drumming partner.
LEIGHTON: Drumming was key. Without drumming, I don’t think I would have had more than a passing relationship, maybe when Feynman was over at our house, because my father was a professor of physics at Caltech, as Feynman was, and they did work on some projects together — most notably what are called the Big Red books, the Feynman Lectures on Physics. You’ll see three names on the cover for authors: Feynman, Leighton, and Sands. That Leighton was my father. That would have been about it. But since Feynman heard me and my friend Tom Rutishauser outside on the patio, drumming on little teak tables from Taiwan, he was drawn out to join us, and we specifically left one for him to pick up, should he have gone for the bait. And he went for the bait. And that led to a wonderful relationship. Feynman and I would get together for drumming, it seemed like, every week. And then stories would pop out.
These stories that Feynman would tell — about his family, about working on the Manhattan Project, about teaching and doing physics — they would become the basis of two books that he talked and Ralph Leighton wrote down. The first, published in 1985, was called Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman; the second was published in 1988, the same year Feynman died; it was called What Do You Care What Other People Think? The books were best-sellers.
LEIGHTON: He got a lot of this storytelling aspect from his mother. And Joan would say that when he and his mom got going back and forth with a repartee, that Joan was literally rolling on the floor laughing.
Joan was Richard Feynman’s sister.
LEIGHTON: Nine years his junior, whom he was a real mentor to, and encouraged her to go into science despite their mother saying, “Oh, women’s brains are different, they can’t go into science, blah, blah, blah.”
Joan Feynman also became a physicist — an astrophysicist, known for her study of auroras, which her brother first taught her about, when they were kids.
LEIGHTON: And Feynman’s mother was quite a great balance to his father, who being a real fan of science and all that, was at the same time kind of — I don’t know how to say — kind of intense, and embarrassing at times, to the rest of the family in his intensity. Like, he was a strict vegetarian. And that’s kind of early days to be a strict vegetarian. And they’d come out at a restaurant, you know, the whole family’s there, and they would serve him the dish and he’d say, “I know you cooked that in a frying pan that had some bacon fat in it.” And Richard’s kind of sliding under the table out of embarrassment.
Richard Feynman was born in 1918; his parents were named Lucille and Melville. His family was Jewish, but he didn’t have much connection to religion, or even to a tribal affiliation. His father was a uniform salesman; he liked to tell Richard that people who wear uniforms are the same as everyone else, but the uniform tricks people into thinking otherwise. The Depression hit the family hard, and they moved around a good bit. They wound up in a crowded house in Queens; that house became Richard’s playground, laboratory, and place of business: he was the neighborhood kid that people would call to fix their radios. He was interested in how things worked — not just physical things but also language and the human psyche. For instance: why would people say they knew something when they didn’t really know it? Here’s Feynman telling a story about his father; this is from a BBC documentary by Christopher Sykes.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: He would take me for walks in the woods, and would tell me various things about — interesting things that were going on in the woods. Looking at a bird, he says, “Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown-throated thrush. But in Portuguese it’s a [word], in Italian a [word], he says in Chinese it’s a [word], in Japanese [word], etcetera. He says, “Now you know all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is. And when you’re finished with all that,” he says, “you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird.” He knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
Charles MANN: You can see his ideas about what it meant to know something in the beginning of his lectures on Q.E.D., quantum electrodynamics, that were turned into a book. At the beginning he gives a little bit of history. And then at the end of it, he says, “Is this history true? No!” He says, “This is a little story that physicists tell, or stuff. I have no idea what the actual history is, but this is the kind of little thing that we have in our minds. And now let’s get to the real stuff, the science.
That is Charles Mann, a science journalist and the author of several excellent books about science. For one book, called The Second Creation, about the history of modern physics, Mann and his co-author Robert Crease interviewed Richard Feynman extensively, in the mid-1980s.
MANN: He was in the forefront of the efforts to construct the Standard Model, which is one of the great accomplishments of science, and one of the great accomplishments of the human mind, as far as I’m concerned.
And the Standard Model is what?
MANN: That’s the picture of all the particles and forces in the universe except for gravity. And it provides answers to all the sort of ordinary questions of science, you know: why is the sky blue, and why does the sun shine? And it’s encompassed within a single mathematical structure that Feynman was a key contributor to. I think he was amused by the idea that a journalist would want to talk to him. I said, “We’re trying to write a history of the construction of the Standard Model.” And he said “Well, okay, but you realize that only one part of it is really solid?” And we were immediately into the physics. I think he was delighted to talk about the physics, but he was extremely uncomfortable with the biographical parts of it. And the reason is that the physics, he felt, like you could document that — “this is actually what’s going on, these papers show what we thought was happening, this was wrong, this was right” — whereas when you’re talking about memory, he kept saying, “This is my memory, right? This is not actually what happened.” He was super-skeptical about the worth of journalism. He was willing to answer our questions, but he was very much willing to say this is a total waste of time. I had the sense that we had to have the best game possible to keep him interested, because otherwise we’d get thrown out of his office at any time.
Richard Feynman had become the kind of scientist that inspired other people to do science.
John PRESKILL: I’m John Preskill. I’m a professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. I am the Richard P. Feynman professor of theoretical physics. I grew up in the Chicago area. My interest in science, like for a lot of people in my generation — I was a kid in the early ‘60s, and I was fascinated by the space program — but actually, Feynman had an influence on me when I was very young. There was a book fair at my elementary school, and I was drawn to a large volume with the title The World of Science. And I just ate this book up. It had a chapter on each of various fields of science, and they were all interesting. There was neuroscience. And there was math. And there was astrophysics. But the thing I found most fascinating was the chapter on theoretical physics. And it started with the story of a small boy who has a red wagon with a ball in it, and he notices that when he pulls the wagon forward, the ball rolls to the back, and when he stops pulling it, the ball rolls forward.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: My father taught me to notice things, and one day when I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around that for children to play with, that they can pull around, it had a ball in it. I remember this. It had a ball in it, I pulled the wagon and I noticed something about the way the ball moved. So I went to my father and I said, “Say, Pop, I noticed something. When I pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and rushes to the back of the wagon. And when I’m pulling along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon.” I said, “Why is that?” And he said, “That,” he said, “nobody knows.” He said, “The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard.” And he says, “This tendency is called inertia, but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now, that’s a deep understanding.
PRESKILL: Okay, so years later, I dug up the book and discovered that all of the chapters were based on interviews with Caltech faculty, where Feynman was a professor. And that certainly had an influence on me choosing a scientific career and becoming a physicist. And so 21 years later, I joined Feynman on the Caltech faculty. So, go figure.
LEIGHTON: My father would describe when someone would come to Feynman with their theory, some highfalutin theory. And Feynman would say, “Okay, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. I don’t understand anything. Just a minute. Remind me, please. What’s the anode, the cathode, which one is which?” And he’d ask these questions, which a lot of people would be reluctant to ask because it sounds like a stupid question. So anyway, the professor, trying to explain his theory, would start from the ground up, because Feynman would take him back to the first — you know, simple, simple, simple. And then build and build and build. And then at some point, the professor says, “Oh, I see. I see. I see. I see what I got to do.” You know, in other words, he’d find the hole in his theory. He kind of could feel the physics and see how it’s going to come out and then construct the pathway of how to get there. But then he would say to the students, “I’m really sorry, I want to give you by example how to feel the physics, but I can’t really teach you how to feel the physics.”
Helen CZERSKI: He was a brilliant theoretical physicist. But what really made him stand out was his humanity. That’s the reason that he was such a good popularizer of science, because he understood that this is not just about the numbers, that there is beauty in it. I’m Dr. Helen Czerski, and I’m a physicist who studies the ocean at University College-London. If you look back at the books of his that were most popular, and the lectures that were most popular, of course, he could do the technical stuff. He’s very, very good at explaining and synthesizing knowledge. But what he’s really doing is making it human. You know, there’s that very famous quote of the discussion with an artist.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: I have a friend who’s an artist and is sometimes taking a view which I don’t agree with very well. You hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” then I’ll agree. And he says, “You see, as I, as an artist, can see how beautiful this is. But you as a scientist, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.” And I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people, and to me, too. I believe, although I may not be quite as refined esthetically as he is, that I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean, there’s not just beauty at this dimension to one centimeter. There’s also beauty at smaller dimensions. The inner structure. Also the processes, the fact that the colors and the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it. The science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery, and the awe of a flower. It only adds, I don’t understand how it subtracts.
Stephen WOLFRAM: Oh, I think he had what we might call childlike curiosity, which I think most children have. The question is, do they lose it before they get to adulthood? And I think that he was a strong-enough willed person who wanted to think in his own way for himself, that he kept that childlike curiosity. Okay, well let’s see. I’m Stephen Wolfram, and I do science and technology, and I’ve done that for many years. I happened to organize the theoretical physics seminars at Caltech for a while, and would invite all sorts of people, and Feynman would come and he would try and have this competition with me for who could find the fatal flaw first, which was — actually in the end, there were some terrible moments there, where it was an embarrassing thing, although some interesting science got done as a result.
I think Dick Feynman was — he liked being on his own, doing his thing. He was not interested really in organizing other people to do things. He liked to have intellectual fun. He would find a problem he thought was interesting, the next hill in physics, and he would go and try and take it. If somebody said: “You’ve got to strategically achieve this or that,” he would say, “I just don’t want to do that. I’m just doing the things I like to do.” I suppose one person who I knew who, strangely, Feynman had certain similarities with, is Steve Jobs. They both had this: “Let’s get to the essence of the thing.” They were both very much of a “What’s the real point? What is the core idea? How do we get down to that without having all this ancillary stuff that is just getting in the way of us understanding what’s going on?”
When one goes through school, one is often just told: “This is true, this is true, this is true. Well, why is it true?” For him, at least when I knew him, he would always say: “But why? Can we figure out why that’s true? Is it even true?” The thing that was important about his way of thinking: he didn’t end up making many mistakes, and the reason is because everything was built on bedrock, in the end. He just wanted to get down to the bedrock, and understand why it would be true for himself. And I would say that he was not a prolific reader of other things. He was much more interested in: let me figure it out for myself. And part of the reason for that was: one, because he found that a much more secure way to think. And two, because what he liked was figuring stuff out. He wasn’t really that interested in being a scholar and studying the detailed history and literature of something.
PRESKILL: To be honest with you, sometimes I think he took this too far.
PRESKILL: It’s not the best advice necessarily for all students, you know — “Put all the books away and figure it out yourself.” Well, there’s something to that. Of course, if you really do think it through for yourself and solve it yourself, then you arrive at a deeper appreciation than if you just read about it. That’s true. But, you know, all those other guys and gals who’ve been writing all these papers and books, they’re not so dumb. And they know some things that maybe you should know, too. So sometimes I felt, you know, he put a little too much emphasis on “you got to work it out yourself.” But that was very much part of his credo. You know, by the time I knew Feynman — I came to Caltech in 1983, and he died four and a half years later. And I don’t think he was the Feynman of legend. He was still extraordinary in terms of the depth of curiosity. And he still had the charisma, and, of course, a great storyteller. But maybe he wasn’t as great a physicist as he might have been.
And who was that Feynman of legend? The legend really began in New Mexico.
* * *
Chapter Two: “Lousy Ideas.”
Growing up in New York City, Richard Feynman was an excellent student — in math and science. English and history? Not so much. He wanted to go to Columbia University, but they had a quota restricting the number of Jewish students, and he was denied. He was accepted at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; at first he majored in math, then electrical engineering, and then settled on physics. After MIT, he applied to Princeton for graduate school; they too had a Jewish quota but Feynman was admitted after getting a perfect score on the entrance exam. At Princeton, he quickly became known as an energetic and iconoclastic thinker — a little too free-spirited for his tweedy elders, but undeniably brilliant.
And so it was that in 1941, just two years into Feynman’s graduate studies, he was recruited to join the Manhattan Project. This was the secret U.S. government program to build an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany could build theirs. The U.S. didn’t know the exact status of the German bomb project, but they did know it was run by Werner Heisenberg, who was one of the most brilliant physicists alive. Feynman began working on nuclear physics first at Princeton, and then he joined the huge lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico, that was run by J. Robert Oppenheimer — or Oppie, as his colleagues called him. Among these colleagues were Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, Hans Bethe — each of whom would go on to win a Nobel Prize in Physics, and each of whom had fled Europe because of Nazi or Fascist persecution. Richard Feynman, the kid from Queens, was much younger than all of them, and much less seasoned. But that did not stop him from contributing:
RICHARD FEYNMAN: It was very democratic, it wasn’t the kind of hierarchy of — where you had to know your place. The point was everybody’s place was to say anything they wanted to anybody else. I never knew who I was talking to. I would only worry about the physics. If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy. If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition. I’ve always lived that way. It’s nice, it’s pleasant if you can do it. I’m lucky. I’m lucky in my life that I can do that.
Much has been written about the Manhattan Project; the recent film Oppenheimer gave it a whole new life. Richard Feyman’s daughter Michelle, whom we met earlier, is in her 50s now, and she still lives in Pasadena. She is a primary keeper of her father’s legacy, and once edited a book of his letters:
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: I’ve read the letter that he sent to somebody from his fraternity and he doesn’t say — it was sort of a recruitment-ish, like, it wanted to be a recruitment letter, but there was so much that he couldn’t say. But if you sort of read between the lines, you could see his enthusiasm and his passion for the project. It was sort of like, “I can’t tell you why, but this thing is so important.” That sort of speaks to his love of country and his patriotism. I think he thought, obviously, that the Nazis were abhorrent and let’s do everything we can to stop them. Whether he thought, “I’m lucky to have been born on this side of the ocean,” I don’t know.
Today, we think of the Manhattan Project as a major triumph in the U.S. effort to defeat Germany and its allies, including Japan. And it was a military triumph! But it was also a triumph for physics. Here are, in order of appearance, Stephen Wolfram, Charles Mann, and John Preskill.
WOLFRAM: I think he felt about the Manhattan Project — he was very impressed with Robert Oppenheimer and his leadership of that project. I think he was proud, actually, to have been involved in something which he saw I think, as being a — well, it was certainly the big achievement of physics. It was the thing that, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, put physics on the map. The whole development of particle physics and all those kinds of things, I certainly view as having been kind of a long thank you from the U.S. Government to the physics community for the Manhattan Project.
MANN: He, like most physicists of his generation, and today, was basically a patriotic American. The way he thought about it is that the government might think that investing in physics would help the country defend itself somehow, as it had with the bomb. Physicists thought that the government investing in physics was one of the things that made the country worth defending, that this was a public good. You know, knowledge for everyone, and the government should be doing this.
PRESKILL: And as far as the practical impact of that, I think there has been a lot of practical impact, in particular from the study of quantum devices. You know, look at the transistor. Look at integrated circuits. You know, that has completely transformed our lives. That comes from our understanding of quantum physics applied to materials. You know, we have lasers. We have medical technologies, like magnetic resonance imaging. All these things have had big societal impact. I like to look at things from the point of view of long term-impact. And if we’re doing things as physicists today, if we’re making discoveries and doing explorations where the impact on society in a practical sense may still be decades away, that’s fine with me. Others have a shorter-term focus. Most companies do. You know, in the tech industry, 10 years is infinity. But in the physics community, 40 years isn’t such a long time.
The Los Alamos experience had a profound effect on Richard Feynman, as it did on everyone involved. The scientific achievement was one thing; the reality of using the bomb was another. By the time the bomb was ready, Germany had already been defeated; and so Japan became the target: Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. Here’s Feynman describing the Trinity test in the New Mexico desert; this was the first successful detonation of an atomic bomb, and it happened just a few weeks before the U.S. bombed Japan.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: After the thing went off, there was tremendous excitement at Los Alamos. Everybody had parties, we all ran around. I sat on the end of a Jeep and beat drums and so on. Except for one man that I remember, his name was Bob Wilson, who got me into it in the first place. He was sitting there moping. I said, “What are you moping about?” He said, “It’s a terrible thing that we made.” I said, “But you started it. You got us into it.” You see, what happened to me — what happened to the rest of us — is we started it for a good reason. Then we’re working very hard to do something, and to accomplish it is a pleasure, it’s excitement. And you don’t stop to think anymore — after you thought at the beginning, you stop thinking. He was the only one who was still thinking about it at that particular moment.
Here are Charles Mann and Helen Czerski:
MANN: What he spoke about was — and what other physicists that we talked to was — this feeling that this source of private delight — working out the world of physics — had suddenly been thrust onto the world stage in the form of a bomb that had killed tens of thousands of people. Imagine if you were a novelist, and, you know, you’re writing this novel privately and it’s published, and then, like Mark Chapman holding The Catcher in the Rye, somebody uses your novel to do something that’s really horrible.
CZERSKI: That’s the great problem of humanity, isn’t it? A tool is just a tool, and it’s the human that uses it that decides how it gets used. I think in the past, there was a lot of focus on, you know, you just did your job, you were this kind of cog in the machine, and that was okay. You could be a really good cog. Back then, there was probably more trust in governments and in systems than there is now. You know, a country acting as a team to get something done is kind of a very powerful thing to live inside.
MANN: And there is this thing that I think bothered Feynman, I know it bothered Hans Bethe because he talked to me about it, which is, the overwhelming feeling at Los Alamos was, the Nazis are terrible, they’re killing Jews, many of the physicists were, in fact, refugees, Jewish refugees from Germany. And they all had friends who were Jewish refugees. And they believed that Heisenberg — correctly, they believed that Heisenberg was leading an effort to do this — we have to get there first, we have to fight the Nazis. Then the Nazis lose. And everybody kept going, never thinking about, “Wait a minute, why are we doing this?” And Bethe said, maybe we would have come to the conclusion that we should keep going, but we never thought about it. And that really bothered him. The physicists regarded themselves as, we are doing this to fight the Nazis. And then it’s used on the Japanese. And then the second thing, Bethe said this, they dropped it on Nagasaki, the second time. Did they really need to do that? Would they have surrendered? They said the horrible thing is, we didn’t even think about it, we never asked. They’re like good soldiers. And, the culture of physics is to be independent inquiry. And so to go along sheep-like in a decision where your work is used for a bomb, that was awful.
The bomb wasn’t the only thing that cast a shadow over Feynman’s time at Los Alamos. Just before joining the project, he had married Arline Greenbaum, his high-school sweetheart. Arline was enthusiastic about art and literature the way Feynman was enthusiastic about math and science. In their eyes, this made them a perfect match, and they were very much in love. But there was a problem. Here’s Ralph Leighton:
LEIGHTON: She had tuberculosis, which was highly contagious, and his own parents — and sister even — were saying, you know, break up your marriage plans. You can’t do this. You have a career ahead of you, all this. And he went against all of that.
When Feynman moved to Los Alamos, he found a sanitorium for Arline in Albuquerque, about 100 miles away. Actually, it was Robert Oppenheimer who found the sanitorium. Feynman visited Arline when he could, and they wrote letters. Because of the secrecy of the Manhattan Project, inbound and outbound mail went through a censor. Feynman invented a code language for his letters to Arline — in part to mess with the censors. He was known around Los Alamos for playing pranks and picking locks, including the locks on the desk drawers of the military men who oversaw the scientists.
LEIGHTON: I think I’m coming to realize now, only now, not when I knew him, that this thing about him being on top of the world and playing jokes and having fun, and all this kind of stuff, it’s a little bit like a standup comedian who has a terrible tragedy in his life that he wants to keep in that box and not go near. And then he loses her, within weeks of the bomb being tested. Imagine one, two. Boom, boom. Those losses, or those transformations in your life, how are you going to recover from that?
RICHARD FEYNMAN: I had a very strong reaction after the war of a peculiar nature. It may be from just the bomb itself, and maybe for some other psychological reasons, I had just lost my wife or something. But I remember being in New York with my mother in a restaurant right after, immediately, and thinking about New York. And 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, 59th Street, to drop one in 34th Street, and then it would spread all the way out and all these people would be killed and all the things would be killed. And that 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 was no different than had ever been before, and that it was just going to go out the same way as any other thing. And I was sure it was going to therefore to be used very soon. So I felt very uncomfortable and thought, really believed, that it was silly. 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.
The war was finally over. But Richard Feynman had moved from a physical desert to an emotional desert. So how would he escape that?
* * *
Chapter Three: “Spinning Plates.”
Here now, was 27-year-old Richard Feynman — his wife dead, the war over, his mind still spinning from the destructive capability of the bomb he had helped create. He had now taken a job teaching physics at Cornell University. Here is Ralph Leighton:
LEIGHTON: He went to Japan shortly after the war to help physics recover. And he even went to the length of learning Japanese to a pretty decent level. You know, I think that was part of atoning. He became very interested in Japanese culture and Buddhism, and would quote from a Buddhist priest who said, “To every man is given the keys to the gates of heaven; the same keys open the gates to hell.”
And here is Charles Mann.
MANN: I think the general thought in physics is: We built this bomb because the Nazis were building it and then we, without thinking about it at all, dropped it on Japan. He was shocked by this, as were a lot of physicists. I don’t think he was as sententious as somebody like Oppenheimer — “Physics has known sin,” or something. But he was very distressed, and he went to Cornell and just felt like, what is the point in studying beta decay?
LEIGHTON: He was very depressed after the war, and he’s starting off at Cornell and he can’t get back to work. He thinks there’s no point in building anything. Everything is going to blow up. Russia’s now got the bomb. And so he just couldn’t get started working.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: So I was really in a kind of depressive condition. They expected me to be wonderful, to offer me a job like this. And I wasn’t wonderful. And I thought to myself, I haven’t done anything important. Well, I’m never going to do anything important. But I used to enjoy physics and mathematical things, and because I used to play with it, it was never very important. But I used to do things for the fun of it. So I decided I’m going to do things only for the fun of it. And only that afternoon, when I was eating lunch, some kid threw up a plate in the cafeteria, which has a blue medallion on the plate, the Cornell sign.
LEIGHTON: He noticed the medallion on the bottom of the plate seemed to turn around at a different rate than the plate wobbled. So he says to himself, “Oh, that looks like a fun little thing to work out.” And he works it out. And then he takes it to his mentor, Hans Bethe, the one who got him to Cornell, having met him at Los Alamos. And he said, “Hey, Hans, check this out. Look at this, look at this.” And Hans says, “Well, what’s it good for?” And Feynman says, “Absolutely nothing. But isn’t it amazing? Isn’t it great?”
MANN: And it reminded him, there’s all these things that you could find out about the world. And he didn’t really care that this was — you know, this was just something that was an itch that he could scratch and it was so pleasurable, I think, to him. And I think many scientists can identify with this — and in a small way, for journalists, too. When something happens, you go, “Oh, that’s what’s going on.”
LEIGHTON: And his Nobel Prize-winning work actually came from the spin of the plate, and then it goes to the spin of electrons and equations. He said it all came tumbling out from working out the wobble of a spinning plate.
RICHARD FEYNMAN: It has to do with curiosity. It has to do with people wondering what makes something do something, and then to discover that if you try to get answers, that they’re related to each other, to the things that make the wind, make the waves, and what motion of water is like the motion of air is like, the motion of sand. The fact that things have common features turns out more and more universal. What we’re looking for is how everything works, and what makes everything work.
MANN: This is probably a little glib, but he loved puzzles. He loved the idea that there was all this stuff for us to know. My father-in-law, whose name is Toichiro Kinoshita and was an important physicist in his own right, and one of the great experts on quantum electrodynamics, which is the theory of light and matter, it was Feynman’s own specialty. So let me tell you a funny story that my father-in-law used to tell about Feynman to explain what Feynman was like. They’re both at Cornell, and my father-in-law found in one of Feynman’s papers an error. And Feynman’s response was so characteristic. First, he immediately went to visit my father-in-law — Tom, as he was called, and apologized to him personally for committing the error. And he repeated this over and over again, because from his point of view, it was a waste of Tom’s time to fix his mistakes. So he profusely apologizes. The second thing he did was, he said, “Let’s work together on a paper.”
So they picked — it was kind of a technical calculation. I won’t go into the details. But Feynman’s idea for collaborating was they would take offices next to each other, and they would each work on the problem for a period of time, and then they would compare notes and see what their separate solutions were. My father-in-law was a fantastic calculator — he would just wade into these things. So he piled up paper doing calculation after calculation and calculation. Over in the next office, he heard Feynman — and Feynman, as you may have heard, was fascinated by drums and the bongos. He didn’t want to play the bongos in the physics department, because it would be distracting. So he got two pencils, and he would tap them on the radiator. And he did this for hours every day. “Dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee.” Like this. And it — he didn’t know the sound traveled through the radiator to the next office. And it drove my father-in-law crazy. Here he is doing these, you know, complicated calculations, and here’s this other guy sitting by the radiator, “dee dee dee dee dee.” My father-in-law, I should say, is quite shy. And so the idea of telling him to shut up, it’s not — you know, that’s just not part of my father-in-law. But at the same time, he’s thinking like, what the heck? You know for the entire month or whatever the time period was. And so at the end of the time, he goes over and meets with Feynman. He comes with this huge wad of paper and says, “I think I figured it out.” And Feynman has one sheet of paper. And he had spent the entire time thinking about how to make the problem simple. And that’s what he’d been doing when he’d been doing the bongos. And then he had solved the problem in 15 minutes.
Despite the radiators to bang on; despite the nice collaboration with a Japanese colleague — a small atonement, perhaps; despite the wobbling plates in the cafeteria, Feynman never felt at home at Cornell. He never even had a permanent residence there. Upstate New York could be cold, and dreary. He started traveling to South America; he fell in love with Brazil; he played a lot of bongo in Brazil. But that’s not where he would end up. Back in the archives at Caltech, with Michelle Feynman, we come across a couple of letters her father sent to Robert Oppenheimer. He was teaching at the University of California Berkeley.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: So now my dad is at Cornell, teaching at Cornell. “Dear Oppie, it looks black for my proposed visit to California. Cornell is all loaded up with graduate students. There are many more than ever before, and we have all we can do to handle them. The department was therefore very reluctant to let me go for the spring semester, as I was needed to help handle the load. There is another personal reason. My father has died and I do not want to go too far away from my mother in New York, at least for a while. I was looking forward to visiting you at Berkeley, as you know. I’m sorry to have to disappoint both myself and you. I had been hoping to see many friends again, but that is the way things go. Sincerely, R.P.” This is the following January — January 6th, 1947. “Dear Oppie, I wonder if after the disappointment we had last time, you would still consider having me for a visit during the fall semester this year? I’m trying to get a leave of absence from Cornell University for the fall term, and the situation looks pretty promising. If you would like me to come, will you please let me know, and I will turn all my attention on getting a leave of absence.”
It would take a couple more years to fully break free from Cornell, but it happened.
MICHELLE FEYNMAN: I think he was changing the tire in the snow for the last time. And then had this offer from Caltech and said, “Definitely, I’m there.”
And California, it turned out, was just the medicine Feynman needed. The Golden State seemed to put him in a golden state of mind. He’d start a family.
CARL FEYNMAN: Finally my mom told him he was crazy, and pointed out the crazy things he was doing.
He would revolutionize his field:
PRESKILL: When Feynman came along with his diagrams, now everybody could do the calculations.
And he’d keep trying to open his mind, even further. That’s next time, on “The Brilliant Mr. Feynman,” part two of our series. Until then, take care of yourself — and, if you can, someone else too.
* * *
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 ITV for audio from “The World From Another Point of View”; to Nicolas Osorio and Music Mind in Pasadena for recording help; to the Library and University Archives at the University of California Santa Barbara for their recording of Feynman’s “Los Alamos from Below” lecture; and special thanks to James Gleick for writing Genius, his biography of Richard Feynman; it’s been very helpful to us. 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.
- Helen Czerski, physicist and oceanographer at University College London.
- 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.
- Stephen Wolfram, founder and C.E.O. of Wolfram Research; creator of Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha, and the Wolfram Language.
- “How Legendary Physicist Richard Feynman Helped Crack the Case on the Challenger Disaster,” by Kevin Cook (Literary Hub, 2021).
- Challenger: The Final Flight, docuseries (2020).
- Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, by Allan J. McDonald and James R. Hansen (2009).
- Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track: Selected Letters of Richard P. Feynman, edited by Michelle Feynman (2005).
- The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman (1999).
- Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick (1992).
- “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” by Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton (1988).
- “Mr. Feynman Goes to Washington,” by Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton (Engineering & Science, 1987).
- 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).
- “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,” by Christopher Sykes (Horizon S18.E9, 1981).
- “Los Alamos From Below,” by Richard Feynman (UC Santa Barbara lecture, 1975).
- “The World from Another Point of View,” (PBS Nova, 1973).
- “Exploring Physics, from Eggshells to Oceans,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).