May 11 is Richard P. Feynman’s 100th birth anniversary
In physics, Richard P. Feynman is feted for his path-breaking contribution to quantum theory — especially its electrodynamics, which won him the Nobel Prize — and for being among the extraordinary scientific talent that developed the atomic bomb and pioneering nanotechnology. But this was only a part of this exceptional scientist, who was an irrepressible practical joker and raconteur, cracked safes for fun and played bongo drums to relax.
For Feynman (1918-86), whose birth centenary is on Friday, was, above all, an instinctive scientist who sought to know everything he got interested in.
This could range from trying to devise an equation for the relation between rotation and wobbling of a plate he saw a fellow student juggle to plumbing the mysteries of sub-atomic particles’ behaviour (he would show the mathematical representation of this by apparently childlike squiggles that came to be known as “The Feynman diagrams”).
And not only was he intensely curious himself, but also sought to instill this spirit of inquiry both among his students and the lay people he met in his colourful life, as well as showing science was an integral part of human life, not an arcane and infallible specialty for a few.
“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” he once said.
While his scientific contribution may be too complex for many of us, it explains why he is considered one of the 20th century’s top three theoretical physicists along with Albert Einstein and the recently-deceased Stephen Hawking, so let us focus on Feynman the person and the teacher to understand his real relevance.
The earliest and most profound influence on Feynman were his parents Melville and Lucille, who both recognised his talent and encouraged it. Also, he picked up his iconoclasm from his father, who as a uniform salesman, taught him not to go by outward appearances, as well the lesson that knowing what something is called cannot be equated with knowledge about it.
This, he supplemented with his irreverence and outspokenness, to become someone who was not afraid of speaking his mind — even to the great scientists he worked with like Niels Bohr, Einstein and Enrico Fermi — or questioning received, “expert” wisdom, or challenging hypocrisy.
But from his mother — whose role has not received its due (according to Feynman’s kid sister Joan) — he picked up humour and compassion.
Without these, he wouldn’t have been the unconventional scientist we know from his pair of anecdotal autobiographies: “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character” (1985) and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character” (1988), as well as biographies by James Gleick and John & Mary Gribbin.
As the last one tells us, his sister Joan, who idolised him and followed him into an equally stellar career in science, the young Feynman was not sure whether he wanted to be a comedian or a scientist — but as we know, he ended up becoming both.
A prodigy in mathematics right from his school and college days where he picked up a reputation for repairing radios by “thinking” and helping his seniors solve their problems, but also made himself infamous for going to the library to get a “map of the cat” for his biology elective.
And then there were the pranks, leavened with his scientific temperament — how he miffed a favourite waitress by leaving a tip under an upturned glass full of water — which she spilled when she picked it up, then mollifying her by explaining how to solve the matter and repeating the prank — doing so with an opaque but empty bowl.
There is more: He learned how to crack safes containing secret papers at Los Alamos — the nerve centre of the US atomic bomb programme during World War II — and leaving mocking notes inside; demanded an actual dollar for making over a patent to the government; visited topless bars (doing physics calculations on napkins) while a Caltech professor and painted a nude painting of Madame Curie (asked if he drew from imagination or observation, he said it was the latter, prompting one mystified viewer to ask him how he had got her to pose for him).
On the other hand, there was the Feynman whose entranced many generations of science students, taught science to a (less than impressed) Swedish princess at the Nobel Prize dinner and above all, showed what the subject was all about — in relation to other academic disciplines, and even religion.
“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvellous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama,” he once said.
But the final word on him belonged to his mother, who seeing a magazine cover featuring him, quipped: “If that’s the world’s smartest man, God help us.”
Mothers are never easily impressed.