April 22, 2008

Discovered Richard P. Feynman yet?

Posted in Books tagged , , , , at 11:32 am by myrlinn

Richard P. Feynman was a brilliant physicist (he won the Nobel Prize) but he was just as well-known for his eccentricities, his humour and his personality. (To find out more about Feynman, check out his Wikipedia entry).

What I like most about his “popular”  works — books containing anecdotes about his life and his work — is that he comes across not just as a genius, but as a person possessing a humanity which engages, and inspires.

This excerpt from a review of Classic Feynman by Washington Post’s Book World gives you a good idea of what to expect from Feynman (for full review, go here) :

…His sister sends him a letter written in Chinese characters — she’s studying the language — and he goes off and learns enough Chinese calligraphy to write back, “Elder brother also speaks.” (He adds, “I’m a real bastard — I would never let my little sister score one on me.”)

His inquiring character was first formed by his father, who taught him that knowing the names of things wasn’t the same as knowing them. The resulting independence of mind is then firmly ratified by his first wife, Arlene, the most wonderful person in this wonderful book. She and Feynman fall in love while in high school and agree to marry. But while they are engaged, Arlene is diagnosed with a fatal disease that they both know will kill her within five or six years. Feynman marries her anyway, against the wishes of both families, and loves her passionately till the end. She clearly deserves his devotion. It was Arlene, in the hospital in Albuquerque, who sends her husband pencils engraved, “RICHARD DARLING, I LOVE YOU! PUTSY.” Feynman confesses to being embarrassed to use them at Los Alamos. You see, there are all these famous scientists and. . . . Incredulous, Arlene says, “Aren’t you proud of the fact that I love you?” And then, without a pause, adds the words that Richard Feynman came to live by, long after Arlene was dead: “WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK?”

… Years later, at an international conference, the Nobel laureate, knowing that the Hiltons and Marriotts are all booked up, happily reserves a room for a week in a rundown hotel catering mainly to prostitutes and their clients. As he once told himself as a graduate student, “You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be: it’s their mistake, not my failing.”

Perhaps the best example of Feynman’s self-understanding lies in his attitude toward money. After some happy years at Cornell, Feynman is lured to Caltech, where he is even happier. But one day the University of Chicago offers him “a tremendous amount of money, three or four times what I was making.” He writes back:

“After reading the salary, I’ve decided that I must refuse. The reasons I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do — get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things. . . . With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I’d worry about her, what she’s doing; I’d get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn’t be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess. What I’ve always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I’ve decided that I can’t accept your offer.”

As one reads along, Feynman’s own mantra-like motto rings forth again and again: “This could be interesting.” The phrase echoes through his mind when he sees a beautiful Japanese girl lingering outside his hotel room or when he accepts the task of trying to understand why the Challenger blew up as it rose into space….

(Copyright 2005, The Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.)

If you’re interested in his books: I did a quick check just before writing this and discovered that you can now get two of his semi-autobiographical books (Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?) packaged with an audio CD in an edition titled  Classic Feynman. Another book of his that I’ve enjoyed is The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. You can search for other books by Feynman here.


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