Feynman at Caltech

 by Leanne Ogasawara

On May 11th, to mark the 100th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth, Caltech put on a truly dazzling evening of public talks. I heard that tickets sold-out online in four minutes; and this event was so popular that attendees started queueing up to enter the auditorium an hour before the program began. Held in Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium (the white, perfectly round hall designed by legendary architect Edward Durrell Stone that students sometimes call “the wedding cake”), the line buzzed with excited conversation as people could be heard telling various anecdotes about Feynman. There are so many of Feynman stories! Just as we were about to be let in, I overheard one that always makes me smile; so perfectly does the story capture what Feynman is to Caltech. A gentleman behind me was talking to a friend about his days as an undergraduate at the Institute. He said that he would never forget the time when an upper class-man had explained to him the workings of Caltech’s highly streamlined bureaucracy:

“Basically at Caltech,” the upper class-man had informed him, “There are six division heads who report directly to the provost; who himself only has to answer to the President.”

Amazed at how minimal departmental management was at the institute, he had asked, “Is that it?”

To which his interlocutor had immediately replied: “Well, of course, the president does have to answer to God; who then must answer to Richard Feynman.”

It’s true that Feynman is absolutely venerated at Caltech. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965, a group of Feynman devotees (aka students) used a ladder to climb up and reach a bas relief sculpture that adorned a high exterior wall in the patio at Dabney House. The sculpture was loosely modeled on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper and depicted a group of nine scientists (including Newton, Copernicus, Pasteur, Franklin, Archimedes, Euclid, Darwin and Da Vinci) who were gathered around a table with the great Galileo in the center. The students in their excitement over Feynman’s win, proceeded to remove Galileo’s name, replacing it with that of Feynman’s. And no one has dared put Galileo back since!

FeynmanAnd it’s not just students who remain devoted to him around here. One of the main reasons my husband wanted to come to Caltech way back when was to be able bask in the wake of Feynman’s genius. Such is his good fortune, that he now sometimes teaches quantum mechanics to undergraduates in the Feynman lecture hall. When I once mumbled that Feynman is not my favorite scientist, my poor husband got very somber and looked as if he was wondering if he had married the right woman… He loves Feynman, and I think it is safe to say that Richard Feynman looms large both on campus –and in my house!

So, it should come as no surprise that Caltech organized quite an exciting evening to mark the 100th anniversary of his birthday. Luminaries who gave talks included the great Freeman Dyson (speaking about his latest brain child, embryonic ark eggs) and Leonard Susskind, who gave a playful talk called “Dick’s Tricks.” More exciting still, Feynman’s sister Joan was there (now in her nineties, she had only just retired as an astrophysicist herself!); as well as his daughter Michelle, who gave the most moving speech of the evening (See video at bottom). Also there that night was Kip Thorne, who chatted on stage with John Preskill about Feynman and the recent success of LIGO and gravitational waves. The evening talks were followed the next day by an all-day science symposium. I only attended the first two sessions–but was excited to hear David Gross speak about The Future of Particle Physics, Hirosi Ooguri on How to Quantize Gravity; Lisa Randall on Darkly Charged Dark Matter and Michael Turner on Cosmology for Feynman. Turner’s talk in particular wonderfully illuminated the kind of scientist Feynman was since he had picked a topic– cosmology– in which Feynman was famously uninterested. (Would string theory have been possible to conceive of without the Feynman diagrams?)

2018-05-12 08.25.16Again and again throughout the two-day event, Feynman’s unique scientific style was eluded to. Intellectually playful and endlessly curious, Feynman liked to solve tough problems by thinking hard and then engaging in elaborate calculations. Words that were repeated were magician, trickster, and maverick. He famously loved playing pranks and likewise hated authority and “bullshit,” we were told by David Gross the next morning during the science symposium. It was described in the talks that when confronted by a new problem, Feynman would first put his head in his hands and just think intensely about how to solve it. He would then go forward trying to calculate mathematical proofs. He was incredibly intuitive –but also (I never realized this) a tremendous calculator (this is the word that was used repeatedly). It speaks volumes that these brainy string theorists and high energy physicists went on and on about Feynman’s tremendous mathematical abilities. Underlings were described as asking him about a certain issue only to be amazed when he would reach into his filing cabinet and pull out pages of mathematical calculations that he had already completed in order to get to the bottom of the same problem. Unlike Einstein, he did not begin with grand thought experiments. Nor was he seemingly guided by strong aesthetic notions, such as Galileo’s “good taste” or the role of beauty in Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar‘s work or that of Frank Wilczek. Rarely publishing papers, Feynman worked tirelessly on mathematical proofs on all manner of questions. His mind was wide ranging and his curiosity limitless. He even took a sabbatical year where he decided instead of leaving the country to just leave his department and worked in genetics for a year (and he was damn good there as well! And this is my own favorite Feynman story, by the way).

Richard Feynman probably reminds me most of 19th century scientist Michael Faraday. Both endlessly curious, Faraday did experiments to try to figure things out just as Feynman made calculations on his own to figure things out. There is James Clerk Maxwell as well. Feynman thought Maxwell’s discoveries to be the most significant event of 19th century– and to be sure, like Feynman, Maxwell also had wide-ranging curiosity, but Maxwell was more driven by finding elegant theories. If Feynman had been born 100 years earlier he might have been a lot like Faraday, in the sense that Faraday wanted to test everything in the lab first (as Feynman tried to do with the water sprinkler problem). Of all the famous Feynman quotes, it is this one below that most sums up for me his particular scientific style:

There’s Nature and she’s going to come out the way She is. So therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn’t predecide what it is we’re looking for only to find out more about it. Now you ask: “Why do you try to find out more about it?” If you began your investigation to get an answer to some deep philosophical question, you may be wrong. It may be that you can’t get an answer to that particular question just by finding out more about the character of Nature. But that’s not my interest in science; my interest in science is to simply find out about the world and the more I find out the better it is…

And find things out, he did! While the term “genius” was not used much during the symposium, he is generally considered to have been one. James Gleick went as far as to title his biography on Feynman with the one word title: Genius.

But what does it mean to call someone a genius?

ChrisIs genius only the uppermost part of the IQ spectrum? Just a top number on a continuum? Like a more vivid or intense form of the norm? Or is it a quality totally different? When we think of geniuses, most of us probably immediately conjure up a picture Einstein. But perhaps we also recall Picasso and Martha Graham? Or Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo? I think of Velasquez and Cervantes. I also think of Kip Thorne! And many people think of Richard Feynman. But, is Gleick correct in suggesting that there are fewer examples of genius in modern times than in the past? He ends his wonderful book wondering why  populations are growing exponentially why the proportion of geniuses are not growing as well?

Did everyone get a chance to see Ashutosh Jogalekar fantastic post here two weeks ago on Feynman? If you didn’t read it, I highly recommend it to you. In the post, Ashutosh describes what was a unique moment in scientific history; a moment when the the first quantum generation –including such luminaries as Bohr, Oppenheimer and Dirac — passed the torch of knowledge on to the second generation of quantum scientists–notably Feynman, Wheeler and Schwinger. Sounds like a lot of geniuses, right? The event that Ashutosh described occurred at a particular time and place –at a conference in the Poconos in which all of these great men attended. Gleick might disagree, but I think it is just extraordinary that over the course of around 75 years (on both sides of WWII) you had two sets of great minds (ie geniuses), who not only were alive at the same time, but worked together and collaborated with each other (even in their rivalries, there was great synergy). And that one set did pass the torch of the work on to the second generation.

Coincidentally, as I was finishing reading Gleick’s Genius, the latest print edition of the LA Review of Books journal arrived in my mailbox –and I was so happy to see it was devoted to the subject of genius. It’s a fantastic edition and includes a fascinating article on “Distributed Genius,” by Joanna Drucker; in which rather than seeing genius as something incapsulated within gifted individuals, the author wonders whether genius doesn’t actually exists outside of the individual self. Really she is asking whether genius is not collective. Druckner is not the only person to question the “great man narrative” we find in the history of science by focusing–not on the history of men– but on the history of ideas. Heidegger also was getting at this in his understanding of the “work of art working,” such that while most art works “work” by somehow incapsulating our understanding of being and holding up our preconceived notions to us like a mirror, there come also great works of genius (masterpieces) which appear as something totally new– whereby we have to redefined all of our preconceived notions! How else to describe the stir and confusion caused by relativity or modern art and dance, for example? Of heliocentrism or the Protestant Revolution. The ideas were “out there” being tossed around before Luther, Einstein, Copernicus or Martha Graham. But these geniuses were especially “attuned” to these cracks in the matrix (the net of preconceived notions by which we understand the world) and through their innovating ideas were able to creatively re-focus our way of understanding art and science.

I am not sure how Feynman would fit into this “distributed” conception of genius. I can, however, tell you what I admire about him. He was a man who asked questions because he truly wanted to know things, and only by working out himself each mystery would he truly understand. And he was blessed by the power to work it out by himself. He was a maverick and kept his critical distance from all preconceived notions. Not being invested in the scientific status quo (or any kind of status quo) he could pursue truth down whatever roads beckoned.  The rest of the world could see how he thought and be amazed by his ability to find an unexpected path to the truth. What is truly remarkable is that he did this both by knowing what he knew and knowing what he did not know, and by keeping in mind the limits of knowledge itself. He had a deep and intimate and honest relationship with Nature and truth. But perhaps what I love the most is that for Feynman this was play. He played with Nature and Nature played back. Sometimes he won, sometimes he lost, but it was always a pleasure. The pleasure of finding things out.



If you are in the neighborhood, Caltech’s Beckman Museum opened a very special exhibition: The Mind’s Eye: Richard Feynman in Word and Image

Also see on Feynman:

The Art of Richard Feynman at Brainpickings

Physics and Feynman’s Diagrams – by David Kaiser (156 American Scientist, Volume 93) PDF


Recommended at 3QD:  Ashutosh Jogalekar’s The Birth of a New Theory: Richard Feynman and his Adversaries




Playing Around (लीला)


Also on Science:

Jim Holt on truth and beauty in strong theory (2006 New Yorker/also included as an essay in his new book with its wonderful title)

My short post on the James Clerk Maxwell Museum and my favorite science book on Maxwell and Faraday


Above photo: Chris lecturing below in the Feynman lecture hall–what is he doing? (And this article on Japanese chalk)

Below highlights of Feynman 100 video…