Remembering Dr Richard Feynman

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The best teacher I never had~ Bill Gates

“I am going to give what I will call an elementary demonstration. But elementary does not mean easy to understand” the great physicist Dr Richard Feynman said, leading to a burst of laughter in his memorable lecture on gravity.

However, Richard Feynman was not all about intellectual roller-coasters. Reading through his autobiography, you get a glimpse of his multi-coloured nature of enjoying alcohol, girls, music etc. and all that is considered fun. Apart from being a Nobel laureate physicist, he was a safecracker, bongo player, painter, storyteller etc. However, nothing swerved him away from the love of his life i.e. Physics. Like a tortoise, he could pull his senses away from pleasures into his work.

A great illustration of his discretion comes when he received an offer 4 times more than that of his incumbent one in Caltech, from the University of Chicago, to which he replied: “After reading the salary, I’ve decided that I must refuse. The reason 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.”

Dr Feynamn with bongos

Playfulness

Dr Feynman faced enough tragedies in his life including the loss of his dear wife Arlene, divorce, the destruction he witnessed from the Manhattan project, his personal battle with cancer etc. He went through a burn-out as well. It so happened that once he was going through a burnout i.e. a state of mind in which you feel stagnated, having achieved a lot in life. More succinctly, it can be said that you lose your drive! Dr Feynman thought: “Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing—it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with.”

However, he constantly resurrected himself from the ashes of defeat. He thought to himself: “So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.”

This brings in a very important lesson to every one of us. Often, out of self-love and self-obsession, we tend to spare undue importance to ourselves and our work, leading to uncalled stress. The ability to become playful comes to our rescue, which resonates with the Indian concept of karma yoga; perform an action to your best and get disentangled from its results.

His love story

His playfulness empowered him to bear with the loss of his dear wife Arlene, coupled with the horrible times of the Manhattan project. However, his love story with Arlene needs a special mention since Dr Feynman knew that he was marrying a girl, who was about to die within a few years due to Hodgkin’s disease. Also, this love story is a great example of how two partners should help each other grow. Rather than expecting perfection from each other, they must complete each other.

Feynman and Arlene

In his own words, Richard Feynman described the depth of their love as follows: ‘Arlene and I began to mould each other’s personality. She lived in a family that was very polite and was very sensitive to other people’s feelings. She taught me to be more sensitive to those kinds of things, too. On the other hand, her family felt that “white lies” were okay. I thought one should have the attitude of “What do you care what other people think!” I said, “We should listen to other people’s opinions and take them into account. Then, if they don’t make sense and we think they’re wrong, then that’s that!” Arlene caught on to the idea right away. It was easy to talk her into thinking that in our relationship, we must be very honest with each other and say everything straight, with absolute frankness. It worked very well, and we became very much in love— a love like no other love that I know of.’

What do you care what other people think

This attitude of  ‘What do you care what other people think!’ enabled Feynman with a certain degree of fearlessness that is necessary for a scientist. It is evident from his life; be it challenging Rene Descartes’ philosophy in his discussions with Arlene, or taking on the NASA authorities during the Challenger disaster investigation.

Feynman at Challenger investigation commission.

However, he had his moments of self-doubt as well, when he saw the destruction caused by the Manhattan project. Like Einstein, he too felt that his abilities led to destruction. But that did not deter him from going forward and develop the field of Quantum Electrodynamics and more importantly his ‘Feynman Diagrams’. In his own words about science: “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.”

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Pic Credit

  1. Caltech Archives.
  2. Richard Feynman website


Prasad Kulkarni is a Data and Analytics professional. At work, he analyses historical data and ponders over historical events otherwise.


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