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Debby HARLOW: “The Auguries of Innocence,” by William Blake:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour 

Ralph LEIGHTON: There’s just times that I wish Feynman was here, many many times. I’m sorry, but this happens when I think of him and I can’t predict when it’s going to happen. So give me a moment. Because I’m not good at controlling the upwelling. It does happen. And I miss the man.

Ralph Leighton is a retired schoolteacher who lives just north of Berkeley, California, with his wife Phoebe. From their front porch you can see the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Pacific Ocean. When Leighton was a teenager, he started hanging out with a man who would become a lifetime friend and inspiration: Richard Feynman. Feynman and Ralph Leighton’s father both taught physics at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, California. But Ralph Leighton and Richard Feynman didn’t bond over physics. They bonded over their love of playing the bongos.

LEIGHTON: We would drum often at his place, but sometimes at my place. And then after that then he’d just talk. And then sometimes we’d drum again, and then he’d talk.

This talking is what Leighton helped turn into two books that made Feynman famous toward the end of his life. The first one was called Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character.

LEIGHTON: If he would ever say, “Oh, did I ever tell you about the time I blah, blah, blah,” I would always say, “Oh, no, I never heard it,” because I wanted to hear the story again.

The second book was called What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character.

LEIGHTON: So many crazy things really did happen to him that I think he prepared the ground for. See, most people wouldn’t go to the lengths that Feynman did to make a story happen. He was aware that he would tell a story later about a certain experience that he was going through.

There was, for instance, the time he was stopped by the police while standing in the middle of the road in the middle of the night, thinking through a physics problem. There was the time he helped investigate the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and angered the head of the commission, William Rogers, by not going easy on NASA, as President Reagan had asked. Also, the time he convinced Ralph Leighton that what the two of them really needed to do was go visit a remote place in Central Asia called Tannu Tuva.

LEIGHTON: It’s a friendship — like, you know, unique. Unique. And what luck upon luck upon luck. I do feel strongly that I want to keep his memory, or memory of him. So this is part of it, and why I’m happy to spend as much time with you as you’re willing to put up with me.

Leighton calls himself the “keeper of the flame” of Richard Feynman’s legacy. So he’ll be our main tour guide today, in this third and final episode of our series about Feynman. We’ll get into Feynman’s 11th-hour adventure into a new state of mind:

HARLOW: I said, “Have you ever tried psilocybin mushrooms?” And he said, “no.” And I asked, “Would you like to?”

 We’ll ask what sort of inspiration we should take from Feynman:

Christopher SYKES: You know, the great thing is to be endlessly curious and want to find out — but if you can’t find out, well, live with the doubt.

And we’ll hear whether he ever made it to Tannu Tuva.

MICHELLE FEYNMAN: I was so emotional on this trip — like, I couldn’t get through anything without crying.

“The Vanishing Mr. Feynman” begins now.

*      *      *

Chapter Seven: “The Three Graces.”

The Esalen Institute is right on the edge of the country, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. To get there, we drove south from the Monterey Peninsula, straight down Highway 1, winding high above the coast and into Big Sur. The natural beauty is absurd: waves crashing far below in the shimmering sunlight, the redwoods throwing off their shade and scent. Just off the road, you find a cluster of cottages, some classroom buildings and meditation rooms, a big dining hall with organic food. Esalen was established in 1962, and it became the epicenter for the Human Potential Movement, which blended psychology, philosophy, and spirituality from the West and the East. Plenty of people still visit Esalen today; they take workshops on tantric yoga or indigenous plant medicine. It’s pricey — some luxury cabins rent for thousands of dollars a night. It used to be cheaper — and more raffish, full of seekers and hippies. Richard Feynman spent some time here in the 1970s and 80s. Was Feynman — a theoretical physicist and hardcore rationalist — also a hippie? Ralph Leighton again:

LEIGHTON: I would say a hippie sympathizer, for sure. We’d take walks, and he’d purposely walk barefoot because he wanted to keep his feet street-worthy. He liked informality. So, he was definitely hippie-esque, a hippie sympathizer, very much. So Esalen just has the combination of being on the edge of the continent and also being on the edge of consciousness and open to infinities of other dimensions, nature of reality, all these concepts. You open your mind and you see what’s out there and what’s possible, but trying to be careful not to fool yourself.

There’s something going on with Feynman and the edge of the continent. I mean, he grew up on Far Rockaway, and he’s got two beaches there — he’s got the ocean side, and he’s got the lagoon side. And then you get to California, you’re staring into infinity. You know, you’re at the edge. So I think Feynman liked being at the edge, boundaries between land and water, the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness, the boundary between understanding something and not quite understanding something. And I think he knew that you find out the most interesting things when you’re poking around the edges.

All that poking had proved fruitful for Richard Feynman. In 1965, he won a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics, which helped deepen our foundational understanding of how light and matter interact. Earlier in his career, he’d helped create the first nuclear weapons, as part of the Manhattan Project; he’d even made contributions to biology. His work intersected with the widespread embrace and application of scientific thinking over the course of the 20th century. But this also included a variety of practices that Feynman thought of as junk science. Things like faith healing and mind-reading, even some practices within psychology and psychiatry.But Feynman also believed in challenging assumptions, even his own — with data if possible, or at least intense observation. “First, I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism and mystic experiences,” he wrote. “I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations … Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought.” So Feynman began going to Esalen as something of a skeptic — but he had always been interested in just how flexible and versatile the human mind can be, if you just let it. When he started going to Esalen, Feynman was already well-known, and he was asked to give lectures. So: it was a warm welcome. As he later wrote: “It’s a wonderful place; you should go visit there.” Back then, Esalen was an eight-hour drive up the coast from Pasadena. On one visit, he got to know three young women who were frequent visitors of Esalen. This was in the early- to mid-1980s. These three women had each been experimenting with administering psychedelic drugs for therapeutic purposes. Their names were Debby Harlow, Cheryl Haley, and Barbara Berg.

HARLOW: This is Debby, and I’m counting down from ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

Cheryl HALEY: And this is Cheryl. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

Barbara BERG: This is Barbara, speaking to you from Antarctica. And the weather is fine here today.

Actually, we’re in a comfortable cabin set atop a cliff on the Esalen campus. The cabin is called Fritz, as it was built for the psychologist Fritz Perls, a major figure in the early days of Esalen. The cabin sits in the shade, with a wall of windows overlooking the ocean; there’s a big stone fireplace, and redwood beams that are said to have come from old bridges nearby that were built by convicts during the Great Depression. For Debby Harlow, Cheryl Haley, and Barbara Berg, today is a reunion; they haven’t been back to Esalen in quite a while. Ralph Leighton had arranged this whole thing. He’d asked them to come down and tell us about Richard Feynman’s adventures here, something they’ve never spoken about publicly until now.

HALEY: Well, I will tell you, the first time that I had personal interaction with Richard was while dancing, because after his lecture — we always did dancing at Esalen, and so it was kind of a free-form, playful dance. And he was interacting with me, and he became very aggressive and dominant. And so I, in counterpart, played submissive, and was subjugated, and the victim. But then I had enough of that. So then I switched roles and then I became the aggressive one, the dominant one, and I turned that energy on him. And true to his form, he followed suit and he became submissive and he became very contrite, and took the softer role.

HARLOW: I came here and I met Dick, and I spent about three hours walking around Esalen, getting to know him and sharing our personal stories. And then at the end of that time, I said, “Have you ever tried psilocybin mushrooms? And he said, “No.” And I asked, “Would you like to?” And he said, “Yes.” So, that’s the beginning of our story together.

HALEY: He had never done any drugs prior to that time, because his mind was so precious to him, and he didn’t want to do anything to tamper with it. And so he did confide to me that the reason he was willing to do it at this time was because he had already had surgery for cancer. He was going to be undergoing his second surgery. I think he knew that his time was coming. And because he was so curious and he was such an adventurer, I think he really wanted to try it before he died.

BERG: I wanted to say for the record that I have a background as a psychotherapist, so I — I know about confidentiality. So even in 1984 or whatever year, we were very specific to ask him whether we did or did not have permission to reveal that he had taken psychedelics, and he gave carte blanche permission.

HARLOW: And he trusted us that, like, I had asked him the same question early on. And he said it’s kind of, like, a need-to-know — you know, if it was to help you persuade maybe another scientist that this might be something worthwhile. I said, “Could that person call you?” You know, “Sure.” But it wasn’t, like — he knew we weren’t going to publish it as this exposé: “Dick Feynman does drugs.” I mean, he trusted us.

HALEY: What a physicist does is explore the nature of reality. And I think he was equally curious about his own nature of reality. And so anything that he could learn or experience that was new was welcome to him. In fact, he told me about how he used to experiment in his dreams. He would set up a task where he would have a nail on the wall, and he would try to feel it in his dreams and see if he could actually sensorially feel the nail. And so he was curious about his mind in the same way that he was curious about all facets of reality. And so I think he was genuinely curious, and he knew that he did not have too much time to live.

Feynman came to call Harlow, Haley, and Berg “the Three Graces,” after the Greek goddesses who were the daughters of Zeus. They became his spirit guides into a new version of something he’d been doing since he was a kid: finding the edge between conscious and unconscious, or maybe the subconscious; the edge between the mind’s automatic functions and the tasks it could accomplish with a little direction, or manipulation. What else was the kind of thinking he did as a theoretical physicist if not setting the mind free to describe things that could not be seen — things that a lesser mind couldn’t even imagine? At Esalen, guided by the Three Graces, Feynman had at least two psychedelic experiences: one with mushrooms and one with LSD.

HALEY: What I remember, that I thought was quite significant, was when Richard was getting off on LSD for the first time, we were watching the water, and the water was moving, and he started saying, “We’ve got to draw the line somewhere. We’ve got to draw the line somewhere.” And I always remembered that, because, to me, it meant that once one started entering that unitive state, where everything becomes interactive and co-mingled, there’s an arbitrary line that is drawn that is consensually agreed upon to be the nature of reality. And I thought it was a very significant thing for him to be saying at that time.

BERG: You know, not everything that happened with him was about psychedelics. I mean, we developed a much broader relationship with him. But I — I remember the LSD session, I thought it was so funny. He stared — he was lying on the same couch, staring at a banana for three hours, quiet as could be — Debby had trained him well, he would just turn it once in a while — and afterwards, I asked him what — so, what was happening? He said, very sincerely, he said, “I don’t know, I was just looking at the banana.”

Stephen DUBNER: Sometimes a banana is just a banana.

BERG: Just a banana.

HARLOW: He talked a lot about Arline. I think how it came up, I asked him, I said, “I know a lot of scientists and I have to say, you’re one of the most well-rounded I’ve ever met.” And he said, “Well, that may be true, but if it is, it’s all due to Arline.” And he said that, “I would have been a very narrow computational kind of physics guy, but I knew her in high school, and she introduced me to art, to philosophy, to all the humanities. She opened up my heart. She was bright as could be. She was my peer, but knowing other things.” He said that’s what did it. And he deeply loved her. And then he told me, of course, a tragic story.

HALEY: He said he met her when she was 16. She was shortly diagnosed with TB. They got married anyway. And he said, “We grew up together.” He said, “Now people have this idea that you have to grow up before you get married. But we got married and we grew up together.” (Part 2): One thing that I will say about him is that he did not believe in an afterlife. And when Arline died, and she would come to him in dreams, he would tell her, “Go away, go away.” And another friend of ours who was there for the LSD time, she felt so sad that he felt that way. And he wrote me a letter — Richard wrote me a letter afterwards saying he’s so sorry that he made my friend cry, because she felt so sad that he did not believe in any kind of ongoing spirituality, or any kind of ongoing life with Arline, even though she had left her body.

BERG: I think one reason that he enjoyed being with us is because we were psychological. And I don’t mean clinical or analytical, but because we were insight-oriented. And I think that moved him, especially with regard to things like being able to talk about his grief with Arline.

HALEY: We went down to visit him just before his second surgery.

BERG: It was simply that he wasn’t feeling well. So we thought, bring the mountain to Muhammad.

HALEY: In fact, we stopped along the way and we cut fronds from the palm trees growing along the highway, for which the police stopped us, but we ended up being able to make off with the fronds.

BERG: And I remember standing in the elevator just keeping a really straight face while we’re in this elevator full of people.

HALEY: And so we were sitting on either side of his bed, fanning him and the nurse walked in and said, “Oh, my goodness, you look like a god with your goddesses.” And he enjoyed that. We met his daughter Michelle and his wife. And they were interacting with him before he went into surgery. And it was interesting, because there was a marked contrast between the way Barb and I were relating to him, which was very playful and very entertaining and lighthearted. 

BERG: They seemed a little more reserved than we were, but I think they had known him for enough years, they just sort of took it in stride. They weren’t horrified. They were worried about him. 

HALEY: And then the next morning, I thought it was a very normal, ordinary conversation that he was having with his family. They were talking about Zeno’s paradox. And it was not emotional. It was not addressing the fact that he may die and they may never see him again. It was a very concrete, rational conversation.

BERG: I think they were respectful that we’d come and really cared. And they knew there was a caring relationship.

HALEY: I really appreciate the sense of respect that he showed to me and to us. I mean, he never came on to us sexually. I really trusted his character, his intention, and his integrity. And I thought that was a really beautiful thing. 

HARLOW: Dick showed such deep respect for each of — each of us had a personal relationship with him. He got me at very deep levels. I would say if anything, he maybe was a little bit paternal. He was quite protective. He cared about me as an individual. We talked about my career. We talked about what my goals were, what drove me. I would say that he wasn’t a taker. He was a person who gave deeply of himself, shared what wisdom he had. He shared his levity.

BERG: I would have to agree. We were walking on the property, and he was talking about his philosophy of art. I thought he was rather self-indulgent. He said something about art and I said something about farce. And he shot me a very dirty look. And I shot him a big-hearted smile. And that’s the moment that we bonded. And so, I think we were not groupies. I think we gave him some emotional-educational training.  

HALEY: I lived in California. I went to New York to visit a friend, and I had just arrived. My friend was in the bathroom. Phone rang. I picked it up and it was Richard Feynman. He was going on this journey where they were going to investigate what happened to the Challenger. He did share in great detail with me how, step-by-step, he investigated the process that came up with that little cheap O-ring that ended up not being replaced when it should have, and was responsible for blowing up the Challenger.  

BERG: He was calling to talk about what it was like. And as everybody knows, at this point — I mean, everyone on that commission for three months, they all said, “We want to go home, sign off on our paper.” And here he says, “I won’t leave until you all sign my report,” and told a wonderful story. I don’t know if it’s a publicly told story or not, that Rogers really didn’t like him, and it was mutual. And that Rogers would send cars to pick him up to take him to meetings, but they’d send him to the wrong place. They’d give the limousine driver the wrong information so he’d be late for meetings, miss meetings. And he was really, you know, sabotaged and thrown under the bush.

HALEY: He was surprised that there was so much resistance. However, he was vindicated in the end because he did discover the reason, and he even went before Congress and demonstrated why it was the case that that little O-ring was responsible for the whole explosion. It was also amazing that we got to watch on television together, because I just happened to be down here at that time, and everything was live on television, when he dropped the O-ring in front of Congress into the glass of water.

BERG: I got a kick out of opening The New York Times all the time and there’s Feynman on the front page again.

We heard all about Feynman’s work on that presidential commission in the first episode of this series. On live TV, Feynman demonstrated how the failure of those O-rings was the likely cause of the Challenger disaster. To all those who watched, his testimony was an act of courage in the face of a government whitewash. To the government, his testimony was more like an act of sabotage. And to Feynman? He was just doing science — using every fold of his brain to try to find evidence for or against the proposition that X indeed caused Y — and if not, what did. Looking back, this may have been a high point for the public opinion of science and scientists. Which is a little bit weird, since Feynman was using science to explain a scientific failure rather than to celebrate a triumph. Still, people believed this scientist on TV, and they trusted him. And how about today?

Helen CZERSKI: I think the question really isn’t about trust in science. It’s trust in the people who do science.

*      *      *

Chapter Eight: “Do We Still Live in a Scientific Culture?”

Stephen Wolfram, a computational scientist and entrepreneur, studied physics at Caltech, and stayed friendly with Richard Feynman until Feynman’s death.

Stephen WOLFRAM: Near the end of his life, he was like: “Well, now I’m going to experiment with all kinds of drugs because I’m dying anyway,” more or less. I think he was a little embarrassed about that. In the environment of the time, these were illegal drugs and so on. I think he viewed himself as a think-for-yourself but nevertheless law-abiding citizen. I don’t think he felt that he was having brilliant insights rushing in because he was in some altered state. One of the things he said to me was, “If you want to do creative science, peace of mind is an essential feature.”

Feynman visited Esalen several times toward the end of his life. People always wanted to know what he was working on, what he was thinking about. So sometimes he’d give a talk — less formal than a classroom lecture, but scientific in nature. One of these talks he called “Tiny Machines.”

Richard FEYNMAN: I heard people around in the baths saying, “Tiny machines — what is he talking about, tiny machines?” And I said to them: “You know, very small machines.” And it doesn’t work. I am talking about very small machines, okay?

WOLFRAM: There wasn’t a field called nanotechnology when Dick Feynman was thinking about nanotechnology. Nanotechnology was something nobody talked about. He just was thinking about it, and he thought it was interesting, and he tried to think through what the implications of that would be.

John PRESKILL: It was very much the beginning of nanotechnology.

That’s John Preskill, the Richard Feynman professor of theoretical physics at Caltech.

PRESKILL: He gave a talk in 1959 at Caltech, which was called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.” And what he meant by that is that there was an opportunity by making our technologies smaller, and by making smaller devices, to take advantage of the potential to put a lot more devices in a small volume of space. And he recognized that that would be important for computing. He even suggested that we should eventually be able to manipulate atoms one at a time, grab a hold of a single atom, do what we want with it.

WOLFRAM: I think, some of his best work was actually done in these corners where nobody else had gone, and where he just said, “Well, I wonder how that works?”

This idea — of a scientist who looks for new corners, who follows his curiosity wherever it leads, who isn’t afraid to spend time at a hippie retreat exploring the layers of consciousness — that is another aspect of the Feynman archetype that you don’t see much of anymore. Science has become more corporate and institutional; it’s also an expensive enterprise, and competitive. With so much at stake, it can be hard for a scientist to spend time on an intellectual query that might not bear fruit. Along with this decline in pure scientific inquiry, the last several years have also seen a decline in the public’s opinion of science. Maybe that’s not a coincidence. Here’s John Preskill.

PRESKILL: I think there has been a surge in skepticism about science and about scientists and their motivation. I don’t think scientists should expect people to just believe what they say on the basis of authority. But I think there is an unhealthy level of skepticism about the motives of scientists. A lot of people go into science, and it’s not because it’s the most lucrative career they could have. They go into it because they want to discover things. And they want to share that knowledge with colleagues and with students and with the world. I think that’s a very admirable motivation. And if we were interested in our own glorification or in pursuing a task because it was lucrative, there are other things we could do.

CZERSKI: I think what’s interesting about that is that even the people who say they don’t trust some science, they still want science on their side. They don’t say, “Here’s my alternative system,” they say “Here’s this other piece of science.”

I’m Dr. Helen Czerski, and I’m a physicist at University College-London.

So it’s interesting, because the authority of science actually isn’t questioned. There’s no one who’s — well, as far as I know — there are not very many people who are saying, actually, the world is run by a load of wizards who just wave magic wands, and things happen. There is a sort of collective agreement that there is a form of reality that we can understand systematically. I think the question really isn’t about trust in science. It’s trust in the people who do science.

Lisa RANDALL: I mean, I think we’re doing everything we can to dismantle the structures that allow science.

Lisa Randall, and I am a physicist, professor at Harvard. 

You can’t have these executive committees or congressional committees that really understand things. I mean, some things are difficult to understand, and not everyone will understand them. And it’s really important for a scientist to be able to at least get the information out there and have that taken into account. There’s also an idea that, you know, when people talk about science, they’re being elitist. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about understanding the world. It’s something that we want to share. I mean, there’s a wonderful universe out there. Yet, we’re so short-sighted, and we really don’t think about the long- term consequences of what we’re doing and what it does to our lives and what it does to animals’ lives or plant life. 

PRESKILL: Feynman would often say the number one rule is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

FEYNMAN: If you expected science to give all the answers to the wonderful questions about what we are or where we’re going, what the meaning of the universe is, and so on, then I think you could easily become disillusioned, and look for some mystic answer to these problems.

In 1964, at the Galileo Symposium in Florence, Feynman gave a talk he called “What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society?” Here’s Ralph Leighton:

LEIGHTON: So he says: “People — I mean the average person, the great majority of people… are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in… And an interesting question of the relation of science to modern society is just that. Why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modern society…” And then he says, “I believe that science has remained irrelevant because we wait until somebody asks us questions, or until we are invited to give a speech on Einstein’s theory to people who don’t understand Newtonian mechanics. But we never are invited to give an attack on faith healing or on astrology … I suggest — maybe incorrectly and perhaps wrongly — that we are too polite.”

So Feynman was interested in the role of science in society for a number of years, especially after the war, when science was used to create the atomic bomb. And so he gave various lectures. One of them, it’s called “The Value of Science,” he says it’s a duty of a scientist to create a philosophy of ignorance and doubt — meaning, admit that you don’t know something, don’t just fake it and make it up. When you don’t know something, say you don’t know it. I know that some people — Alan Alda comes to mind — have set up, like, a center for the communication of science. And so Feynman, I’m sure, would happily give a guest talk at Alan Alda’s Center for the Communication of Science. But he would start off by saying, “Now, you know, I don’t know anything about really how to communicate science, so I’m just going to tell you something really interesting that I found out about the other day.” And then by example, he would show you great communication of science.

Alan ALDA: My name is Alan Alda, and I act, I write. You don’t need to know more.

Well, let’s say a little bit more. Alan Alda has played many roles on TV, film, and stage; he’s probably still best-known for starring as Hawkeye Pierce in the TV series M*A*S*H.

ALDA: When I was born, my father was in burlesque. So from the earliest times I can remember, when I was two or two and a half years old, I was standing in the wings watching burlesque shows, watching comics and straight men, chorus girls and strippers. And I learned a lot. And the thing that I identified with was the performing, I guess you could say, the performing instinct, the communicating with the audience without necessarily acknowledging that they were there. Feynman was a performer on his own. If you look at his lectures, you see the jokes he does that Ralph Leighton said were carefully constructed and paced, and he always was aware of where he wanted something funny to happen.  

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science was established at Stony Brook University in 2009. About a decade earlier, Alda had fallen so in love with how Richard Feynman communicated science that Alda commissioned a play about him, called QED; Alda played Feynman on stage in both Los Angeles and New York.

ALDA: I think Feynman had a good policy about how he taught physics. He didn’t tell you everything at once, but he let you know that there’s more to know about it. So the first dose might be general, and get you connected to the big idea. And then when you were ready, he’d get into more detail. But it’s not a good idea to go into the weeds first. I think I learned a lot from that aspect of his teaching. Couple of reasons why I think science should be communicated as well as possible. One is, it’s beautiful. If we said we’re going to eliminate music and poetry, and you’ll get by on the train schedule, that’s all you really need, it would be a big loss. We wouldn’t stand for it. And yet we tolerate not learning more about science in a way that’s meaningful to us. We read headlines and the question is, is it a breakthrough, is it going to end cancer or not? Don’t bother me if you haven’t got that. I think we’re going through a period where there’s less trust placed in people who are experts at anything, not just science. There are a lot of us who seem to feel if you claim to know so much, you’re setting yourself up as better than me. Rather than saying, “Let me hear what you have to say and see if I can learn from you,” it’s “Don’t tell me what to do. I’m free to believe anything I want.”

So what would Richard Feynman make of how science is practiced and communicated today? 

Charles MANN: Yeah, I think that he would have wanted to have scientists speak out about things that they actually know about. And, you know, his classic example, kind of an exemplar for so many people, was when he participated in the board that was investigating the Challenger disaster.

That is Charles C. Mann, a science historian who interviewed and wrote about Feynman.

MANN: He did this publicly because he had immediately gone down and reduced it to, you know, what is going on? This thing gets cold it, breaks. And that was pretty much it for the whole thing. And there’s an example of a scientist really being helpful on an issue of public policy and understanding. And you find constantly pundits and political figures speaking in loud, confident voices about subjects which they know absolutely nothing about, and it kind of drives me crazy because I do have in my heart this example of Feynman, who is this enormously smart, inquisitive, knowledgeable guy, who is exactly the opposite. You know, contrast that to Feynman’s insistence on the limitations of our knowledge.

FEYNMAN: I can live with doubt and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose — which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell. Possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.

LEIGHTON: It’s a strange feeling that nothing is fixed. I know that makes some people uncomfortable, like, “No, give me the answer. Now. I want to know the formula. Give me the formula.” Well, if you can get the attitude that it’s okay that things are not fixed, and it’s fun to discover new material, the world is more interesting than you thought.

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Chapter Nine: “Whatever Happened to Tannu Tuva?”

Toward the end of his life, Richard Feynman was no longer on the cutting edge of physics research. The field was changing, as science does. Computer science was coming on strong, and Feynman did have a significant interest in that — but he wasn’t a computer scientist. He was, however, perhaps the most famous living scientist at this time, in the late 1980s. His book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman — a memoirish catalog of his adventures and misadventures — had been a best-seller. His participation in the Challenger space shuttle investigation a year later had shown the public how a scientist tries to solve a problem, and how very different that is from how politicians try to solve a problem. The scientist was all about inquiry, however uncomfortable that may be; he asked direct questions, however uncomfortable they may be; he was all about truth-seeking, even while acknowledging that the full truth is often unknowable. He also believed that it was simply wrong to pretend to know more than you do. A lot of what we know about Feynman today comes from some documentary films made toward the end of his life. Here’s Ralph Leighton:

LEIGHTON: For many years, Feynman would go over to England with his family in the summer, because his wife Gweneth was from Yorkshire. And one of those summers, a B.B.C. documentary filmmaker named Christopher Sykes interviewed Feynman at length, sitting in a living room with a beautiful garden outside and apparently violating all of the rules at the time of what you do for a documentary. Because here was a head shot of Feynman speaking and gesticulating, but no cutaways, no fancy stuff, just a guy talking.  

Christopher Sykes had first traveled to Caltech to persuade Feynman that this was something worth doing.

SYKES: I have to say, he was quite intimidating. He looked me in the eye, he didn’t smile or anything, and he said, “Yes, sir.” And I introduced myself and we went off to his office and he sat down and said, “Well, go ahead.” So I tried to tell him a bit about — you know, I could feel perspiration under my arms as he just looked at me, he didn’t say a thing, or I blathered on a bit about what we might try and do. And he said, “Well, I just think this is a dumb idea,” he said. “But tell you what, do you want to come down to the Greasy Spoon and we’ll have some lunch?” So we went off, and we ordered soup, and we talked about this, and we talked about that.

He asked me, you know, what I was interested in, and I told him I’d studied literature, and he said rather impatiently, “Well, all this is just a complete waste of time. I mean, you know, the only way to look at things is science, and that’s the only thing that’s interesting.” And I thought, well, I’ve got nothing to lose here. And I think rather rudely, I said to him, “Well, I just think you’ve got absolutely no business having such a blinkered view of things. It’s just such a narrow way of looking.” And then he looked at me, and this is the great thing — he winked and he said, “I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I did read a novel once. It was called Madame Bovary. And it was kind of nifty.”

Then he said, “I’ll tell you what, if you want to do something, you go away, think about what you want to do, and tell me what it is, and I’ll say yes or no. So off I went and I thought, well, what’s he really good at, that I can get my mind around? Well, he’s really good at talking. So I suggested to him what we should do is we’ll start by doing a long interview. I would ask him questions about his life and work. And we’d go through in a chronological way from childhood onwards and then see what we got. And he said, okay, he’d do that.

The film, it’s gone on to become a bit of a cult film in a way. And I — I think it’s just because of his ability to make people feel that even if they don’t understand science, or it would be much too difficult for them to, even if they tried, he makes everybody realize this must be a wonderful way to spend your time — you know, exploration of the world and trying to uncover the secrets of nature is just the most wonderful endeavor.

I have to say, ever since I got involved with him, I realized I go through life thinking, I wonder what Feynman would say about that? What would Feynman think about this? It would have been fascinating. All this was before the Internet, effectively. You know, what would Feynman have made of the Internet and the World Wide Web and things like that? He would very often say, “I don’t know — that would be very interesting to find out about.” Because that’s the other thing — he detested any pretense at knowledge. You know, he hated fakery. As he says, “It’s much more interesting to live not knowing the answers to things than having answers that might be wrong.” The great thing is to be endlessly curious and want to find out, but if you can’t find out, well, live with the doubt.

LEIGHTON: In January of 1988, I told Sykes You better hurry up and get out here, because I think Feynman is not doing well. And so Sykes came out in January of 1988, and you can tell from how Feynman looks in that documentary versus the others, how much he had changed in his physical appearance from those surgeries.

SYKES: Ralph Leighton got in touch with me. And said, “Look, he’s really ill now. People think he’s really not going to last much longer.” By then, there’d also been conversations between Ralph and Feynman and me about this fascination they had with this country called Tannu Tuva.

MICHELLE FEYNMAN: He was interested in visiting a far-off land called Tuva.

My name is Michelle Feynman, I’m Richard Feynman’s daughter.

He had collected stamps when he was a boy, and they had the most interesting shapes, diamond and triangular. And the images on the stamps were like nothing he had seen. So this boy in New York, he’s seeing yaks or whatever else was on these stamps. And it just painted a picture of an entirely different world. So that sort of stuck in his head. And then many, many years later, he was at our dinner table with Ralph Leighton, and they were playing a geography game, to sort of entertain and educate themselves or the children or something. 

LEIGHTON: I was at one of my weekly dinners at the Feynmans’, and I told him how I was going to get a geography class to teach. I usually would teach math, because that’s where the demand is. But they let me teach a geography class. And so Feynman says, “Oh, yeah, what do you know about geography?” And I said, “Oh, I know every country in the world. I listen to the shortwave radio, I can tell you —.” He said, “Oh, yeah? If you know every country in the world, whatever happened to Tannu Tuva?” Now to me, Tannu Tuva sounded a little too made-up, and I almost was tempted to say to him, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman.” I was very skeptical. But we went to his Encyclopedia Britannica, which he loved and could recite for you the jacket categories, almost like a rapper. And in the back was an atlas. And there we saw the Tuva, or Tuvanskaya Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, Tuva A.S.S.R., whose capital was Kyzyl — K-Y-Z-Y-L — and that did it. As he said, any place that’s got a capital spelled K-Y-Z-Y-L has just got to be interesting. At the time, we had no idea how interesting it would be. The stamps were great. We wanted to know, can you still see scenes like on those stamps today? And we had no idea about this throat singing that they did. Only when we got into our research, driving around Southern California, and going to university libraries, we came across a book that said that in Tuva they have a method of singing in which a single voice can produce two notes simultaneously. And we go, whoa! Little did we know that it was physics. It was harmonics.

SYKES: They wanted to find out absolutely everything they could about this remote country in the middle of Asia. They even found a phrasebook that they could somehow write to get in touch with people in Tuva, and they did. Meanwhile, the whole problem was how could they get there? Typical of Feynman, he was offered the opportunity to go there. The Soviet Academy of Science just said, “Look, we’ll arrange for you to go to Tannu Tuva if you’ll agree to come and give some lectures in Moscow,” physics lectures, which everybody obviously would want to hear. And Feynman refused to do this, for two reasons. One is he didn’t want to, as he called it, cheat by using ways of getting to this place that ordinary people couldn’t do. He didn’t want to do it in what he saw as a cheating, privileged way just because he was famous and so on. And also he felt so strongly about human rights issues in Russia that he declined this idea of doing the lectures. Anyway, they kept trying to find out a way to go. And the idea was we were all going to go together. And I think probably we would have made a film or something if we had. So it was when Ralph gave me the wake-up call and said, “Look, if we’re ever going to do anything about Tuva, we must do it soon because Feynman’s not going to live much longer.” So I went to L.A. and my wife and I shot this long interview with Feynman about Tuva on a home video camera. He could only manage about an hour at a time. He got so tired. 

SYKES: When my wife Lotte and I were doing the video recording, one morning, we turned up at Richard’s house and he was still in bed. Gweneth, his wife, said, “Yeah, Richard’s still in bed, but he knows you’re here and he’s going to get up and so on.” I’d said “You know, there’s a thing here that we’re going to have to worry about, which is if Feynman really is dying” — and it seemed pretty clear he was — “the question is, Should I ask him to talk about death and his impending death?” And we decided, “Well, maybe the best thing is just to ask him.” So I went upstairs and he was getting up and getting dressed. And I said, “Look, there’s something I need to ask.” He said, “Well, shoot,” you know, he always said “shoot.” I said, “Well, I wonder whether you think I should ask you what you think about the fact that you’re dying?” And he said, “Mmm,” he said, “Look, I’ll tell you what, I’ll just get back into bed and let’s just think about this and talk it out aloud.” And he started talking about the conversations that he had had with Arline. I hadn’t heard about Arline until this point. For the first time, I heard the story of this love affair with — with Arline when they were very, very young and she had tuberculosis, she was going to die. They knew she was going to die. And they discussed this. In the course of Feynman talking about his discussions with Arline about death, and what it all means, he got to the end and then he said, “You know, I realize talking about this, about death, it just makes me very depressed and very unhappy. So I think the answer is, if you don’t mind, don’t ask me about it.” It was really interesting, the way he thought, took it seriously. You know, you ask, and then he sets about working it out for himself and then coming to a conclusion, and telling you what he thinks the correct answer is.

You know, if you watch the film, which we called The Quest for Tannu Tuva, it’s amazing to think that this guy, just a few weeks before he died, was able to talk in such a completely mesmerizing and vivid and entertaining way about something he was passionate about. And that’s when he — he and Ralph memorably played the bongos, and Feynman sang this song he liked singing about “Oh, I’ve got to have some orange juice.” Feynman two, two or three weeks later, I think, went into hospital, didn’t come back out again.

LEIGHTON: As I later learned, for him, the journey was the destination, as the saying goes. I thought we were going to try to plant the flag of some crazy Californians at the Center of Asia monument in Kyzyl. And that’s what constituted success. But actually, along the way, trying to get there, we succeeded in bringing the largest archeological and ethnographic exposition that ever came out of the Soviet Union to the United States. That’s not bad. Even if you don’t get to Tuva. You know, trying to get to Tuva, to this far-off magical land, and you got cancer eating away at you — it’s a diversion. You know, you’re having fun with your friends. But I, I now kind of wonder whether for him it didn’t make any difference if he got there; it was something else to think about. That’s something fun to do while you have cancer.

Two weeks after Feynman died, he and Ralph Leighton finally received approval from the Soviet government to visit Tannu Tuva.

MICHELLE FEYNMAN: My dad just ran out of — ran out of runway, I guess. You know, he didn’t have enough time to see that plan come to life.

Eventually, Michelle Feynman and Ralph Leighton did make the trip.

MICHELLE FEYNMAN: So it was, honestly — and maybe, maybe I’ll put some of it on jet lag — but I was so emotional on this trip, like, I couldn’t get through anything without crying. 

The Feynman contingent was warmly received in Tannu Tuva. And his legacy there lives on. Just a few years ago, on the 100th anniversary of Feynman’s birth, the mayor of Kyzyl declared a “Richard Feynman Day”; the celebration included Tuvan throat-singing, and a Feynman diagram was carved into a rock face near a sacred place known as the Valley of the Kings. If you are an admirer of Richard Feynman — as I am, plainly, and as you may be by now — there is of course a disappointment that Feynman never made it to Tannu Tuva himself. On the other hand, it’s quite fitting: his curiosity outstripped even his achievement. I read something not long ago that made me think of Feynman. It was from a book by Carl Sagan, another great science communicator. Sagan was writing about what he called “the dumbing down of America.” “I have a foreboding of an America,” he wrote “ … when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to … knowledgeably question those in authority; … our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

Have we slid into an era of superstition and darkness? I’d like to think that we haven’t yet … at least not too much. And the human animal does continue to accomplish wonderful things. But we also routinely exercise stupidity and cruelty. When I look back at the life of Richard Feynman, what I most admire him for are, simply, the things he stood for, and what he stood against. He stood for the indelible power of curiosity; he stood for the need to work very hard to distinguish between truth and hunch; and, maybe because of what he learned from his father, the uniform salesman, he stood for ignoring the uniform, the epaulets, the titles; what mattered to him were first principles, not status. And what did Feynman stand against? He stood against people bowing to experts without reason; he stood against people positioning themselves as experts without justification; his biggest fear may have been authoritarianism. An authoritarian represents everything Feynman disdained, and he has the power to stamp out everything Feynman loved. And what he loved most of all, I believe, is that every one of us is given the opportunity to try to understand the natural world and ourselves on a deep level, if we are so inclined. That was his thrill; that was his gift; and for me, that’s his legacy. I don’t think I’d have ever thought of starting a show like Freakonomics Radio, more than a decade ago, if it weren’t for Richard Feynman. So, for that, I thank him — and I thank you.

On the day we visited the Esalen Institute, with Ralph Leighton and the Three Graces, we were pulling out of the parking lot at the end of the day when Ralph Leighton came running after us, waving his phone. He wanted to send us one more recording.

LEIGHTON: This is Ralph Leighton. I’m at Esalen on September 26th, 2023, with the Freakonomics Radio crew. I’m out here at the edge of the world, and it makes me think of Richard Feynman being here, looking out on the ocean. And I’d like to read a poem that he wrote about that. He says:

For instance, I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.

There are rushing waves

mountains of molecules

each minding its own business

trillions apart

yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages,

before any eyes could see

year after year,

thunderously pounding the shore as now.

For whom? For what?

On a dead planet

with no life to entertain.

Out of the cradle

onto dry land

here it is


atoms with consciousness;

matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea,

wonders at wondering: I,

a universe of atoms

an atom in the universe.

And thus concludes our series, “The Curious, Brilliant, Vanishing Mr. Feynman.” I hope you enjoyed it.

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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; Nicolas Osorio and Music Mind in Pasadena, and Mike Buffo at House of 8 Media in Big Sur, who helped with the field recording; and to Rich Garcia at SiriusXM in Los Angeles. Thanks also to everyone at the Esalen Institute, especially Sam Stern and Shira Levine. Thanks also to Christopher Sykes and the BBC, for the audio from their Feynman documentaries; to ITV, for the audio from “The World From Another Point of View”; and the Library and University Archives at the University of California Santa Barbara for their recording of Feynman’s “Los Alamos from Below” lecture. 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.

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  • Alan Alda, actor and screenwriter.
  • Barbara Berg, friend of Richard Feynman.
  • Helen Czerski, physicist and oceanographer at University College London.
  • Michelle Feynman, photographer and daughter of Richard Feynman.
  • Cheryl Haley, friend of Richard Feynman.
  • Debby Harlow, friend 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.



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