Feynman at 100

The past month has seen quite a few events and articles celebrating the 100th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth (see for example here, here, here and here). Feynman was one of the great figures of twentieth century physics, with a big intellectual influence on me and on many generations of particle theorists. In particular, his development of the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics and the Feynman diagram method for calculating and understanding what quantum field theories are telling us are at the center of how we have learned to think about fundamental physics and apply it to the real world.

When I first started studying physics, in the seventies, Feynman was a major figure to physicists, but not that well-known outside the subject. After the 1985 appearance of the book of anecdotes “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” and his 1986 role in the report on the Challenger disaster (followed by more anecdotes in the 1988 “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”) Feynman became a huge public figure. The Physics section of any book store that carried science books would often have nearly a whole shelf of books by and about him, with the only competition the shelf of books about Einstein (the Hawking shelf didn’t get going until a bit later).

I avidly read the Feynman anecdote books when they came out and was suitably entertained, but I also found them a bit disturbing. Too many of the anecdotes seemed to revolve around Feynman showing how much smarter he was than someone else. I hadn’t thought much about this, but was interested to read historian of science Melinda Baldwin’s piece Feynman the Joker this month at Physics Today. It ends with:

But Feynman’s charm and brilliance were only one side of his personality. His writings, and the accounts of those who knew him, reveal a man whose faith in his own brilliance could veer into self-absorption and the mistreatment of others, particularly those whom Feynman didn’t consider his equals. Even people who admired Feynman’s intellectual gifts could become exasperated with his antics, and some important professional and personal relationships went off the rails when that happened. Feynman’s legacy reminds us that it’s important to have fun with physics—but to make sure those around us are having fun too.

I think this is an overly harsh take on Feynman, but do think that his later career suffered from the sort of self-absorption Baldwin points to. She links to an interview with Gell-Mann, which includes:

One of your best-known interactions was with Richard Feynman at Caltech. What was that like?
We had offices essentially next door to each other for 33 years. I was very, very enthusiastic about Feynman when I arrived at Caltech. He was much taken with me, and I thought he was terrific. I got a huge kick out of working with him. He was funny, amusing, brilliant.

What about the stories that you two had big problems with each other?
Oh, we argued all the time. When we were very friendly, we argued. And then later, when I was less enthusiastic about him, we argued also. At one point he was doing some pretty good work—not terribly deep, but it was very important—on the structure of protons and neutrons. In that work he referred to quarks, antiquarks, and gluons, of which they were made, but he didn’t call them quarks, antiquarks, and gluons. He called them “partons,” which is a half-Latin, half-Greek, stupid word. Partons. He said he didn’t care what they were, so he made up a name for them. But that’s what they were: quarks, antiquarks, and gluons, and he could have said that. And then people realized that they were quarks, and so then you had the “quark-parton” model. We finally constructed a theory—I didn’t do it by myself; it was the result of several of us put together. We constructed the right theory, called Quantum Chromodynamics, which I named. And Feynman didn’t believe it.

He didn’t believe that the theory was correct?
No. He had some other cuckoo scheme based on his partons. Finally after a couple of years he gave up because he was very bright and realized after a while that we were correct. But he resisted it, and I didn’t understand why he had to be that way. Partons…

Looking at Feynman’s career, his great accomplishments were in the years 1947-58, and it’s somewhat surprising that he didn’t make major contributions (besides the partons…) to the development of the Standard Model in the years from 1958-73. One contributing factor may have been his insistence on “What I cannot create I do not understand.” John Preskill recounts in a recent talk:

Feynman often told students to disregard what others had done, to work things out for oneself. Not everyone thought that was good advice. One who disagreed was Sidney Coleman, a Caltech grad student in the late 50s and early 60s. Coleman says: “Had Feynman not been as smart as he was, I think he would have been too original for his own good. There was always an element of showboating in his character. He was like the guy that climbs Mt. Blanc barefoot just to show it could be done. A lot of things he did were to show, you didn’t have to do it that way, you can do it this other way. And the other way, in fact, was not as good as the first way, but it showed he was different. … I’m sure Dick thought of that as a virtue, as noble. I don’t think it’s so. I think it’s kidding yourself. Those other guys are not all a collection of yo-yos. Sometimes it would be better to take the recent machinery they have built and not try to rebuild it, like reinventing the wheel. … Dick could get away with a lot because he was so goddamn smart. He really could climb Mont Blanc barefoot.”

A related aspect of Feynman’s working method was a sizable amount of hostility to any abstract mathematics. In his talk at the Caltech Feynman 100 event, Lenny Susskind makes a great point of this, seeing Feynman’s insistence on physical intuition rather than mathematics as a key to his strength. For some problems though, as Sidney Coleman realized, refusing the mathematician’s toolbox may just make it impossible to do what you need to do.

A peculiar aspect of the Caltech scientific symposium was that the two talks on particle physics (by David Gross and Hirosi Ooguri) spent a great deal of time promoting something that Feynman detested. While Gross described a major legacy of Feynman as “a healthy disrespect for authority” and “a total aversion to BS”, those characteristics led Feynman to have a very negative view of string theory, up until his death. He was known to remark that “string theorists don’t make predictions, they make excuses”, and in a 1987 interview stated:

Now I know that other old men have been very foolish in saying things like this, and, therefore, I would be very foolish to say this is nonsense. I am going to be very foolish, because I do feel strongly that this is nonsense! I can’t help it, even though I know the danger in such a point of view. So perhaps I could entertain future historians by saying I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction.
What is it you don’t like about it?
I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation – a fix-up to say “Well, it still might be true”. For example, the theory requires ten dimensions. Well, maybe there’s a way of wrapping up six of the dimensions. Yes, that’s possible mathematically, but why not seven? When they write their equation, the equation should decide how many of these things get wrapped up, not the desire to agree with experiment. In other words, there’s no reason whatsoever in superstring theory that it isn’t eight of the ten dimensions that get wrapped up and that the result is only two dimensions, which would be completely in disagreement with experience. So the fact that it might disagree with experience is very tenuous, it doesn’t produce anything; it has to be excused most of the time. It doesn’t look right.

Asked at the end of his talk what he thought Feynman would say about string theory today, Ooguri responded with an argument that string theory had made a lot of progress since Feynman’s time, was much better understood, and was the only known consistent way to do things. He said he was very curious to know what Feynman would say, but I think it’s extremely clear what that would be: he thought it was BS back in 1987, and thirty years of lack of any progress towards making any predictions has shown that he was right back then.

I’m still an admirer of Feynman’s work and career (and sorry that I never got a chance to meet him), but at the same time think it’s a good idea to acknowledge that he, like any scientist, had his limitations. Adopting his hostility to abstract math and trying to climb Mont Blanc barefoot is likely a bad lesson to draw from his career. On the other hand, a really good lesson to learn from Feynman would be the importance of recognizing when theorists have nothing but excuses and are engaging in BS. There’s no question at all about what Feynman would have thought of the current mania for the string theory multiverse.

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57 Responses to Feynman at 100

  1. Joao Leao says:


    I also grew up admiring Feynman and still do. Unlike you I had a chance to meet him and talk a bit with him and I wasn’t disappointed though he was not the stupendous lecturer that most people still make him out to be (that was Julian Schwinger!!). He was tentative and messy but he was charming and quite unique in the way he captured your attention. I take a bit of issue with what you say about the interviews that became, “You must be joking,…”. The anecdotes have a common thread which is his pleasure in mystifying other people by leading them to believe he was much smarter than he really was! There is a different way to interpret the whole of these episodes as suggesting that people are a lot more gullible than you may think and ready to make him smarter than he was. I believe that is the source of the charm and the popular success of that book. The following ones show much more of his humane side specially the story about the death of his first wife which was later turned into a movie.

    As for Gell-Mann’s qualms I would say his ego is pretty comparable to Feynman’s in magnitude from what I could gather since I also met him a few times. I would not care for whatever option each of them held about the other or whether “quark” is any more refined than “parton” just because it was picked from Finnegan’s Wake rather than Dollywood!

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Joao Leao,

    I haven’t met Gell-Mann either, but from what I’ve heard don’t doubt that his ego is just as healthy as Feynman’s was. He did however have a lot more success with the theory of the strong interactions than Feynman ever did. Part of this may have just been being of a somewhat younger generation, but I think his ability to exploit symmetry arguments involving the non-trivial abstract mathematics of the representation theory of groups like SU(3) was also part of the story (and I think it’s possible this is what Coleman had in mind in his comments).

  3. When I was younger I had unreserved admiration for Feynman, read a lot of his books, and learned much of what I know from him (in fact there is even a video of my impersonating Feynman on the Internet, which I’m afraid has more views than my papers have readers).

    Unfortunately, one thing that I took unquestioningly from him was his hostility to philosophy, which lasted until I met actual philosophers, and realized that they are far from the empty-headed-talking-about-angels-dancing-on-pinheads stereotype that Feynman propagates: they actually know a LOT, have little tolerance for unrigorous thought, and understand well problems that still confound physicists to this day.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Joao Leao,
    I just noticed that Clifford Johnson seems to have somewhat shared my reaction to the 85 book, see
    “the famous “Surely You’re Joking…” book, which even back then in my naivety, I began to recognise as partly a physicist’s user manual for how to be a jerk to those around you. (I know I’m in the minority on this point…) “

  5. milkshake says:

    The take from these anecdotes is that Feynman loved to draw attention to himself in a sly or subversive way – whenever the setting was pretentious, serious, highbrow, he would try to do something outré.

    He adopted his exaggerated Brooklyn-Italian accent to sound like a street-smart gangsta because he grew up in a working-class neighborhood where being geeky was unfashionable; he was short and bad at sports. The prankster persona was perhaps also his way of impressing other kids.

    The other thing I heard – and I don’t know if it’s true – is that he was hard to collaborate with because he was too self-absorbed, that for most students it was not ideal to have him as a PhD advisor – the issue being that he was self-taught for good and bad and his style of working was difficult to emulate.

    He was fond of saying that physicists can re-invent the parts of math they need for their work rather than trying to follow the developments in mathematics in general; this was probably fine for him but not the best practical advice. He joked about those other physicists who (unlike him) knew group theory stuff.

  6. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I also have been through some of the erstwhile Feynman worshiper’s stages of grief, though I still love re-reading all those books I collected. I’ll forever be grateful for “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter”, even if it’s dated. I still find “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” charming, even if it had nothing to do with actual progress in the field of nanotechnology. While an unrefined and halting speaker, his public lectures still always struck me as remarkably dense with instructive content. I liked how he made this point so emphatically:

    “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

    I watched a recording of a lecture he gave, I think at the Esalen Institute. It was a little embarrassing (the attire alone…), but he made a very pithy comment near the end about what was then (mid-80s?) the current state of theoretical particle physics. Something about underestimating theorists’ taste for speculation in response to the dwindling supply of new experimental data. While his tone was cheerfully derisive, I wonder if the current state of affairs would leave even him too depressed to comment.

  7. Peter Woit says:


    I think you’re referring to this talk
    around the 59 minute point,

  8. Joseph Conlon says:

    The Feynman cult is a funny thing – for writing something similar in spirit in my book (about how Feynman’s approach was not the right one for the 1970s developments at the boundary of maths and physics) I get these angry rants from crackpots about how *dare* I say that Feynman was not the greatest genius that ever lived, etc, etc, etc, and in any case I’m just a dumb string theorist who could never appreciate Real Physics.

    That said, I don’t think the position you adopt here (that, for all his greatness, Feynman’s flaws as a scientist and a human should be recognised, but when it comes to his end-of-career judgement on string theory he is infallible) is coherent. If (as is surely true) we should not take Feynman’s opinion on topics on the intersection of physics and mathematics as the most acute one, then why should we care what what he thought about string theory?

    And while on this topic, the anecdotes in the Feynman books about his visits to strip clubs and the like read odd on first reading and even more so today. Powerful man tells stories about how he got laid; not a genre that has aged well.

  9. Anon123 says:

    There’s no question that Feynman was smart but I think more than that he was extremely clever and valued that much more than rigorous intelligence. Clever people are smart but cleverness looks at the the world in a different way. I have the impression that Feynman talked about this but I don’t have a reference handy. But the difference between intelligence and cleverness has always stuck with me (being somewhat smart but not overly clever). I think a lot of success in physics obviously requires smarts but cleverness is often the key to new insights.

  10. Pingback: Feynman at 100 | 3 Quarks Daily

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Joseph Conlon,
    I don’t think that Feynman’s judgment on anything was infallible, just that it’s clear what it was (and would still be now) in the case of string theory. Given this, it’s rather odd to honor his memory with talks promoting a research program he thought was misguided. It would have been just as odd to honor him by bringing in a bunch of mathematicians to promote, say, the categorical representation theory approach to geometric Langlands as the right way to think about certain quantum field theories.

    On his fondness for strip clubs and anecdotes about best strategies for convincing low self-esteem women in bars to come home with him, I don’t want to host a discussion of the morality of his sexual behavior here. As far as I know, this didn’t involve women he had professional relationships with, and he seems to have been no more a misogynist than the average person of his age.

  12. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Yes, that’s the one. There’s another on computers, I think. Also a bit cringeworthy.

    On the other hand, a Nobel Laureate in physics, taking the time for an open exchange of ideas with what’s likely a pretty woo crowd even by Californian standards. Everyone being reasonably respectful. A remarkable social feat, if nothing else.

  13. Amitabh Lath says:

    I was a grad student in the Friedman-Kendall group at MIT when “The Hunting of the Quark” was published (which Riordan claimed led to the 1990 Nobel Prize for quark discovery). The book has anecdotes from the late 60’s about Feynman coming up to SLAC as the deep inelastic scattering experiments were starting to get hints of something hard inside the proton. According to the book, he came to”snoop around” the End Station counting house and would later brilliantly recast Bjorken’s “scaling” in pictorial terms (Feynman diagrams). But when I asked them for more Feynman stories I was told that when they all hung out with him he was a pretty typical theorist, this whole “pool shark from Brooklyn” persona came later.

  14. Chris Oakley says:

    I suspect that Feynman was the most brilliant physicist who ever lived. His legacy, although substantial, does not do him justice. He did not seem to have had the patience to follow things through to the bitter end, and this allowed lesser talents, such as Gell Mann, to steal a march on him. It is interesting that Einstein will always be better remembered both by physicists and the general public – a less brilliant man, but with more patience (arguably too much, considering how he wasted his latter research years).
    Also, as Gell Mann pointed out, Feynman’s ego always got in the way. The Challenger disaster investigation is a nice example of NASA using this to their advantage.

  15. Anon says:

    There’s no such thing as ‘abstract’ math, though there is certainly a cargo cult about abstraction in mathematics. Best to read Feynman’s prejudice as directed against the cargo cult, and not abstraction. We mathematicians understand -and judge – even the most spectacular abstractions in concrete and hands on ways, not dissimilar to Feynman’s. You can transform any problem into some construction of moduli, some functorial property, recasting it as finding a point in a space that you want to be non-empty, but at the end of the day, the equations need solving.

    But the metaphors and language we use to describe how we think differ among individuals – so people may perceive disagreement if they don’t understand the mathematical commonality of our agreements.

    PS what could be more concrete than SU_3? Matrices!

  16. One might hope that Feynman knew of better reasons to be sceptical of string theory than that alleged issue with the number of spacetime dimensions.

    A little reflection reveals the following situation:

    In ordinary QFT, spacetime dimension may be any natural number.

    In ordinary gravity, if that number D is fixed by hand, then the number of macroscopic dimensions seen in generic solutions is a natural number smaller or equal to D.

    Hence to do better than plain QFT on this front, one should want a theory that predicts spacetime dimension D to be a small natural number and equipped with some mechanism to stabilize some large dimensions.

    A natural way to achieve this is to invoke spin geometry, due to the sensitivity of spin representation theory to spacetime dimension.

    In this vein, for instance Roger Penrose has claimed that the number 4 of spacetime dimensions is naturally explained as being the number of dimensions in which twistors work. But in fact twistors work more generally in spacetime dimensions 3, 4, 6 and, with some modifications, 10. This happen to be the same spacetime dimensions in which the Green-Schwarz superstring exists, and it is for the same mathematical coincidences in both cases (related to the four real normed division algebras).

    A small number of small natural numbers of potential spacetime dimensions, around and including 4, such as this one, is not too bad, certainly as compared to the anything-goes of plain QFT.

    If one brings not just spin geometry to bear, but in addition asks for geometric realization of conformal fixed points of QFTs, then the available set of dimension is {3,4,5,6}, as it appears in AdS/CFT. Also not too bad, if one is really interested in understanding where spacetime dimension comes from.

  17. Another Anon says:

    Chris Oakley: “I suspect that Feynman was the most brilliant physicist who ever lived.”

    Why? Because he jointly developed quantum electrodynamics? And, er, that’s it.
    I think you’re confusing charisma and celebrity with achievement.
    Dirac the complete opposite. No charisma, but greater achievement. Public doesn’t even know about Dirac.

  18. Peter Woit says:

    I don’t think you’d impress Feynman with that answer to him.

    “Abstract” may be the wrong word, I was just trying to characterize the limited set of mathematical tools that Feynman was comfortable (and extremely expert at) using. I don’t think these included SU(3) matrices.

    Chris Oakley/Another Anon,
    Sorry, enough of the sterile debate about who was the greatest.

  19. milkshake says:

    Regarding the sterile debate about greatness: A popular magazine OMNI featured Feynman interview prominently on the cover – with the caption “The smartest man in the world”
    Someone showed this to Feynman’s old mom. Her incredulous reaction was “Who? – our Richie? God help us!”

  20. Amitabh Lath says:

    The charisma question is worth exploring.

    Right after the 1990 Nobel Prize was awarded for the quark discovery I was based at SLAC and noted some real concern that the media attention would all go to Feynman, and Bjorken (a SLAC theorist) would be left out. The emerging narrative seemed to be that in the late 60’s the experimentalists were baffled by their results and genius Feynman swooped in and explained to them: hey youze guys, them’s partons! But it was Bjorken who had done meticulous work with structure functions to figure out what the results were saying.

    There is a real issue here that Bjorken’s current algebra is dry and mathematical and Feynman’s diagram of an electron zipping past a proton exchanging a photon is much more intuitive. The physics community in the late 60’s was enamored of S-Matrix theory and the idea of a composite nucleon was not getting traction. Having Feynman on board probably did help sell the results.

    Of course Bjorken himself still remains consummately above the fray belying the caricature of theorists battling over recognition.

  21. Amitabh Lath says:

    About Gell-Mann and Feynman’s quark vs. parton fued: to the experimental community it was more than a linguistic joke. Although Gell-Mann came up with the quark theory he (allegedly) considered them mathematical constructs only and pushed back against the idea of them being actual pointlike things inside protons. Feynman of course had no such reservations about the physical existence of partons.

    Gell-Mann stuck to his guns basically until the November revolution in 1974. There are anecdotes of Gell-Mann chiding Feynman about his “put ons” and the idea of objects with fractional charge.

    This might seem an esoteric philosophical question but to young experimentalists at the time it determined who was invited to give plenary talks at major conferences etc. Having someone of Feynman’s stature helped a lot, since the Stanford/SLAC people were not prominent enough at that time.

  22. Joao Leao says:


    I also think you are being unfair with Feynman’s contributions to Strong Interaction physics. Parton Phenomenology became quite important to the understanding of Deep Inelastic Scattering experiments at SLAC in the mid seventies and — pace whatever bile Gell-Mann holds — Feynman gave a remarkable set of lectures on QCD at Les Houches in 76 or 77 and in the 80s he made a lone brave effort to find a general solution to the theory in low dimension.

    He also made notable contributions beyond Particle Physics namely superfluids, the polaron and plasmon theory, etc… In the late nineties he was seminal in developing the early conceptions of Nanotechnology (“Lots of Room at the Bottom”) and Quantum Computation with his Mosquito Island Conference intervention and his work on Quantum Logic Gates. He spend a summer here in Cambridge working with Ed Fredkin and Danny Hillis on the original concept of the Connection Machine. That was actually when I had the chance of meeting him and found him quite an engaging and quite delightful person not the showman or jerk of legend.

  23. GoletaBeach says:

    What I remember is that in 1960’s, particle theory had veered off into the analytic S-matrix and a whole denial that relativistic field theory in the perturbative limit was relevant at all… a movement led by Geoff Chew, David Gross’ PhD advisor. Feynman was part of the counterculture at that time… he still believed in the applicability of perturbation theory. But he recognized that the strong interaction needed some additional physics insight, and so he started from scratch with partons. He thought BJ was way too enamored with fancy math.

    There was an awful lot of doubt that quarks where physical back then… we thought they were just an accounting scheme. The phase shift to their reality arrived when the neutrino scattering experiments (one led by Barry Barish) got data that laid right on top of the SLAC DIS data, where the extrapolation needed the assumption that quarks were real.

    David Gross and others were smart enough to circle back into perturbative field theory; BJ bugged out and became extremely phenomenological and even worked in experiments. Gradually folks with strong math ability discovered deep field theoretic connections, and it always looked to me like they made there way back to a better, deeper version of Geoff Chew. Always seemed to me that Feynman, starting in the 1970’s, just didn’t want to do that, and explored other stuff.

    Very few great innovators are *not* egotistical. Is there a single physics Nobel Laureate without a double-extra-huge ego? Maybe Charles Townes. Maybe Carl Anderson. It is the old…. “sometimes it takes a pig to find a truffle” deal. And the pig usually eats the truffle, unlike the rest of us dogs, who turn the truffle over to our masters.

  24. CWJ says:

    ” Is there a single physics Nobel Laureate without a double-extra-huge ego?”

    Of the ones I’ve met, Hans Bethe, Ben Mottelson, and Willy Fowler didn’t seem to. Willy could be irascible (of course I met him only toward the end), but Bethe and Mottelson were gracious and kind to a young physicist still wet behind the ear.

    Murray Gell-Mann and Sheldon Glashow, on the other hand, lived *exactly* up to the stereotype.

    David Thouless was somewhere in between. He probably had an ego, but he didn’t openly make it about himself. Nonetheless, he could certainly make students (and colleagues, even ones who had pretty healthy egos themselves) wither and feel small and irrelevant.

  25. Tim May says:

    I cooked a steak for Feynman in 1973 in Isla Vista, the hippie area next to UCSB. We sat around for several hours. A great time.

    At one point I expressed some doubts about where particle physics was going. Feynman said that were he going forward he would tend to go into computer science. I did. I joined a small company named Intel the following year.

    And as the saying goes, “And that made all the difference in the world.”

    Feynman was a great guy.

    –Tim May

  26. liuyao says:

    By chance I was watching some of the YouTube videos of Gell-Mann (Web of Stories interviews), and it is easy to get too negative an impression of their relationship. I’m glad that Peter had taken to include Gell-Mann’s “enthusiasm” towards Feynman. (Keep these in mind if you want to read an old Atlantic piece on their rivalry: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2000/07/the-jaguar-and-the-fox/378264/)

    That Feynman in his later life got overconfident with his way of doing physics is not uncommon among great physicists. Einstein was most famous in that regard, and Dirac also, to some degree (with his Large Number Hypothesis).

  27. Amitabh Lath says:

    >Is there a single physics Nobel Laureate without a double-extra-huge ego?

    I can point to two.
    My thesis advisor Henry Kendall and his colleague Jerry Friedman (1990 Nobel Prize in physics, shared with Dick Taylor of SLAC).

    Kendall kept teaching undergraduate atomic physics (the dreaded “junior lab”) after 1990. This has to be one of the most time consuming thankless teaching assignments ever, and he was great at it. Friedman is one of the kindest men I have ever met, and remained so after the prize. He became dept. chair and totally revamped undergraduate teaching which had been fairly Victorian until then.

  28. Petite Kabylie says:

    I watched many times Feynman’s Messenger Lectures on youtube and each time I am amazed how he manages to be that funny and yet explain physics with such depth. By reading Feynman’s biography though I learned that he himself admits that his lectures fade compared to Schwinger’s. I have searched the web in vain for Schwinger’s video lectures. Can anyone please provide a link, if any, to Schwinger’s video lectures so that I could compare with Feynman’s impeccable style?
    Thank you!

  29. Marshall Eubanks says:

    I used to regularly attend John Schwartz and Murray Gell-Mann’s supergravity seminars in the mid-1980’s at CalTech; Feynman was always there.

    What I remember was Feynman being upset in the lack of any possibility of experimental confirmation of the new ideas of string theory and supergravity. I can still remember him getting in an argument with Gell-Mann and saying vehemently “but there’s nothing to measure!” That to me seems much more on point than uncertainty on how many dimensions get compactified.

  30. Michael Weiss says:

    >Is there a single physics Nobel Laureate without a double-extra-huge ego?

    My undergraduate adviser Ed Purcell–such a gracious, kind and generous person. For those who may think that Ed was “only” an experimentalist, his group led to way to the non-relativistic QM theory of NMR relaxation.

    Ed once told me that he and his remarkable then-younger colleagues (N. Bloembergen [also a Nobel laureate], R. Pound [who may have just missed sharing the NP with Taylor and Hulse] , Torrey [a scientific statesman]) had the opportunity to develop the theory “only because the really smart physicists had overlooked the problem.”

    By this turn of phrase, it was evident that Ed did not include himself in this category –even if his physical intuition was second to none. This profound intuition is so beautifully evident in his elementary E&M text in the Berkeley series.

    Ed told me the following Feynman story: he once declined to give a prestigious seminar at Harvard in order to meet high-school students in Cambridge. But I could not tell whether thought this was admirable or droll showmanship of some sort.

    BTW John Preskill was Ed’s TA in 1976 (I think) when he taught an introductory QM course (“Physics 143”). John once had a blog post on this experience.

  31. Doug McDonald says:

    I know well no Physics Nobel winners, but I worked for a Chemistry one, and the post-doc that worked with us both also won one, (but … we did scattering measurements). I was a colleague with a winner in Medicine. All three were very nice people and delights to work with or talk to. None were great lecturers.

    Then there was the guy across the street named Schwinger. I sat in on his 1st year
    grad quantum mechanics class (non-relativistic, no field theory). I saw what people here say about his lectures. They were beautiful and well organized. And indeed, listening one could imagine that one could have, back in the day, thought up all of QM onesself, just from experiment. But after an hour back across the street thinking, it all,
    always, fell apart. By “all” I mean his logical progression from something that, listening, seemed obvious, to where he was going. There were gaps in the argument.
    Much later I studied real relativistic field theory. Now I, vaguely after all these decades, realize that he had thought things through from relativistic/field theory bases and cooked up hand-wavy explanations that made sense. I should have asked the real physics students if they felt the same. But they were inspiring lectures.

    I never heard Feynman, but his online lectures are hand-wavy enough as-is that I never feel that hour later letdown.

  32. Patrick Orlando says:

    A Feynman story. I entered Columbia in Sept. 1967 as a Physics major. One day on the bulletin board outside the physics office on the 8th floor was a notice that He was coming to talk about parton theory. Of course I went, it was in one of the two stadium size lecture halls on the 3rd floor. I brought a friend of mine who was from Brooklyn as I was. We had to seat up in the higher rows as the room was almost full. Feynman talked and wrote on the blackboards, pulling down all three of them to fill with equations that to me at the time where incomprehensible. At the end of the lecture when the questions began from the Full Professors in the front, some also Nobel laureates, one said “but there’s more to it than that ! ” And Feynman said in his heavy Brooklyn accent, (like mine) “yes there’s the Numerator ! ” And everyone laughed.

  33. Joao Leao: Feynman died in 1988. He did not have anything to do with seminal developments of nano in the 90s, and his “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” lecture was in 1959.

  34. Richard Séguin says:

    This amusing story about Feynman recently appeared in the UW-Madison alumni magazine.


    He was once hired by UW-Madison, but immediately took leave for Los Alamos to work on the war effort.

    “In June 1945, an impatient Mark Ingraham, dean of the College of Letters & Science, sent Feynman a letter demanding that he return to campus and start teaching classes.”

    “Years later, Feynman finally returned to Madison. ‘It’s great to be back,’ he told the crowd, ‘at the only university that had the good sense to fire me.’”

  35. Shantanu says:

    Peter, something underappreciated is Feynmann’s contribution to GR and also showing using an ingenuous thought experiment that gravitational waves carry energy.

  36. Shantanu says:

    Very few great innovators are *not* egotistical. Is there a single physics Nobel Laureate without a double-extra-huge ego? Maybe Charles Townes. Maybe Carl Anderson. It is the old…. “sometimes it takes a pig to find a truffle” deal. And the pig usually eats the truffle, unlike the rest of us dogs, who turn the truffle over to our masters.

    I can give one counter-example : Joe Taylor. Extremely nice and modest. He also travels by long distance trains. In fact when we met at a conference one participant didn’t even know he had a nobel prize and asked if the train fare was costly 🙂

  37. Marshall Eubanks says:

    Douglas Natelson – I saw Feynman give an updated version of the “Plenty of Room at the Bottom” lecture at JPL (in the von Karman auditorium) in the mid-1980s. I believe he was also thinking about massively parallelized computers at the time (JPL and Caltech were both working on hypercube computers then), but I have no idea what came of that.

  38. Bryan Draughn says:

    I’m just an avid reader. Physics grabbed my attention at a very young age but I have a very hard time with mathematics. I get it, but I get lost in it.
    Feynman’s “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman!” Changed the way that I thought about everything because Feynman demonstrated in the book that you CAN change the way you think about everything…and probably should.
    I can’t help but mention a strong hunch about him from what I’ve gathered throughout the years regarding his personality.
    He warns strongly how one can think oneself into a corner , or worse, overlook a pivotal detail and way down the line that detail can undermine even the most colossal body of work.
    My point is, I can imagine the man being constantly aware of the dangers that an advanced mind could potentially bring down on someone. Himself and others alike.
    I always get that sense of caution when I watch one of his interviews or lectures.
    If he had an ego that was out of proportion, I would be surprised if he wasn’t well aware of the danger in that.

  39. Amitabh Lath says:

    Feynman’s contribution in the deep inelastic scattering seems to be in just looking at the data and ignoring everyone else’s ideas.

    As GoletaBeach admits above, the theorists working on the quark model thought of them as accounting gimmicks. I suppose the idea of asymptotic freedom eventually helped things progress?

    As for the SLAC/MIT DIS experimentalists (and theorists like BJ) it was nuclear physics, a continuation of the work done at the Cambridge electron accelerator (which had exploded). The jargon is full of terms like structure functions and form factors. Particle physics was something done at Berkeley, and then at the newly built national lab in Batavia IL.

    In my mind Feynman’s genius was in ignoring these artificial experimental and theoretical boundaries, as well as the prejudices of the smart set.

  40. Anonyrat says:

    Feynman’s students who did not continue in physics say that Feynman’s great teaching was on being happy.

  41. CWJ says:

    I often cite this quote from Feynmann:

    “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

  42. Bill_K says:

    Here’s an exchange between Feynman and Gell-Mann that happened in a Caltech seminar.
    Feynman was at the front board making some miscellaneous remark about “Bosey-Einstein statistics.” Gell-Mann in the audience interrupted him with a smirk and a glance around the room, “It’s Bose. BOSE! Anything else is an affectation!”
    You can decide for yourself what this says about anyone’s egos…

  43. Let me add my thesis adviser, Doug Osheroff, and his co-laureates Bob Richardson and Dave Lee, to the list of physics Nobel winners without enormous egos – all very nice, friendly people. Horst Stormer, too. Steve Chu doesn’t suffer fools, but he’s also very good about what he does and doesn’t know, a trait absent in many people with fewer credentials and awards. Bob Laughlin deliberately cultivates a larger-than-life persona – hard to judge how much of that is real ego. The bottom line: Physicists are people, with the whole variety of personality types. Getting to meet and interact with these interesting people is a feature of a career in the field. Success as measured by the Nobel prize doesn’t have to correlate with being an egomaniac. (Peter, if this is too off-topic, go ahead and delete it.)

  44. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I’ve greatly enjoyed watching interviews with Freeman Dyson, recounting his role in the development of QED and related interactions with Feynman and other major figures of that era. Dyson was kinder to Schwinger than Gell-Mann, but given his withering assessments of IAS leadership at that time, it’s clear Dyson is not someone who is necessarily easy to impress. It’s also clear he held Feynman in total awe.

    Pointless arguments about IQ aside, I’m inclined to take Dyson seriously.

  45. GoletaBeach says:

    Nice to read all of the positive comments about Physics Nobelists. I guess I don’t see ego as necessarily unpleasant… perhaps Feynman is a good example of a compelling personality but still, somehow he made himself the center of it all. My one interview in his office didn’t really let me measure that directly.

    If Tim May reads this… hope he does… the current undergrad group in Physics at UCSB would love it if you exchanged any info about Feynman in Isla Vista with them… these days the group is UDIP at physics.ucsb.edu… the used to by the Society of Physics Students… at the moment they call themselves Undergraduate Diversity in Physics. They are quite active and fun, and any photos of Feynman in IV would be treasured by them.

  46. Ethan says:

    Thanks for posting this Peter.

    I have been thinking about Feynman a lot lately. In fact it’s only accidentally -by watching one of the numerous interviews he gave in the 1970s and 1980s- that I realized that this year is the year we celebrate his 100th birthday.

    The good thing about him is that there is a lot of video material on him available in youtube. To me these Feynman videos are a window into the thinking of the kind of genius we don’t see anymore. He regularly comes in the top 10 on surveys like this http://www.caltech.edu/news/physics-world-poll-names-richard-feynman-one-10-greatest-physicists-all-time-368 . I wish we had more videos from other great intellectual figures of the XX-the century like Claude Shannon, John Von Newuman and the others mentioned in the preceding link who lived in the XX-th century.

    I mean no offense to those who currently work in the forefront of physics but I do believe at the same time that the “publish or perish” frenzy is a killer. Would Richard Feynman stand a chance in today’s academia? It’s very hard to predict but I somehow think he wouldn’t. With all the confusion about some who are say that falsifiability is a thing of the past, I find this critique of cargo cult science refreshing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWr39Q9vBgo . I think he would be probably appalled as to how far we have gone as a scientific community in this nonsense.

  47. Tim May says:

    GoletaBeach, I’ll be very brief here.

    I sent a short message to their address recapping what I said here, with a few more details. It didn’t bounce.

    I can’t circulate the several snapshots I have somewhere, as I wasn’t the photographer and people have gotten sensitive about formal release permissions. I lost touch with the guy who took the snapshots a long time ago.

  48. Naturally Inconsistent says:

    Pardon my two simple points. First the shorter one.
    In reply to Urs, when they first built QFT, they did not try to predict the number of dimensions. They simply used it as an ingredient, and be done with it. The point is that you cannot claim to “predict number of dimensions” and then have to manually set the compactification simultaneously, and expect to be respected. Either you say you literally don’t know, and just work with that assumption, or you explain it without fudge factors.

    About partons, I was taught that Feynman was deliberately trying to separate phenomenology from theory. Which, typically for new theories, that is a smart thing to do. That is, partons are “these are what have been observed in experiments, that are basically going to be there no matter which theory you later wish to fit”, and quarks and gluons have as main job to try to fit/explain what Feynman was quantifying with partons. Philosophically, the separation of the map and the territory, is a great move, one that led us to wonderful things like tensors.

    I am in no way denying that Feynman was egoistical, wanting to show off his intelligence, and bad to women. (Though I certainly needed someone to point these facts out to me.) I am just saying that the quark v.s. parton issue, is really not an issue at all.

  49. tulpoeid says:

    I liked this balanced attitude towards Feynman quite a bit, you don’t come across this every day.

    As about “Surely you’re joking”, and living outside USA, all these years I’ve been having the impression that the consensus is that a big portion of the book is made up. Therefore I’m somewhat surprised to find out that many people don’t view it to be so.

  50. Blake Stacey says:

    According to Sidney Coleman, “Bose” was pronounced “boʊʃ”, i.e., with a long o and a sh-sound at the end. This was somewhere early on in the QFT lecture videos that Harvard put online several years ago, but I forget exactly where.

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