Saturday, 11 May 2013


Richard (Dick to his pals) Feynman has been dead these last 25 years, but would have been turning 95 today had he not been caught in a pincer movement by two species of the dreaded crab in 1988.  Since 1982 - the centennial of Charles Darwin's death - I've been celebrating Darwinday at wherever I happen to be working. One 12th Feb I brought pizza to the lab with the cheese cut to shapes representing the Galapagos Islands but the oven smartly reduced this OCD aspiration to the Blobby Archipelago. Eventually the annual party settled down to me buying a few dozen donuts and pushing them at folks over coffee.

If I hadn't failed my physics "O" level I might instead have been making a reg'lar knees-up on the 11th of May because Feynman was made of the same stuff as heroes are. There were very few places where he wasn't the smartest man in the room and we should be in awe of this intellectual prowess.  I wrote in March about his intuitive feeling for numbers and how this helped hone his crap-detector. 

But he brought a number of other talents to a level far above the mean.  He was a natural percussionist who was co-opted into an authentic Samba School in Rio and played with them during Carnaval.  He modestly maintained that they liked his style because he played with a 'foreign accent' that was as attractive to them as for us hearing a French girl speak English.  Quite independently of my admiration for Feynman, I spent about 5 years of my life playing chocalho and repinique very badly with a samba school in Dublin, so my respect for his skill is informed by knowing how hard it can be to do it at all, let alone well.  

He learned to speak Portuguese fluently enough to be able to give lectures on particle physics to Brazilian university students in that language.  He started learning the language when he was a young faculty member and took advantage of his institution's evening extension programme.  All set to enroll in Conversational Spanish (always useful in the US where it's the second language), he signed up for Portuguese instead when he saw two pretty girls going into the room next door.  Quite independently of Feynman, and indeed years before I discovered Samba, I also spent several years struggling with Portuguese which I first took up in preparation for a field-trip to the Cape Verde islands a generation ago. I loved it, and was eventually able to read a newspaper and write a few simple grammatically correct sentences but I was as far from being able to lecture in the language as I am from being able to play a concert flute.

He had an artistic eye and was accomplished with charcoal or a pencil and a large sheet of paper or with a biro and the back of an envelope. Coherent with the anecdote about evening classes above, he was particularly drawn to drawing women clothed and especially unclothed.  I suppose that my XX readers will find this a bit seepy but suggest that the directness and openness of his love of women and of the female form has some redeeming qualities.  It is no coincidence that one of his great contributions to the understanding of physics was his Feynman Diagrams which represented the dynamics of particle physics as cartoons.  Oh and while we're on his physics I should mention that he shared the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work on quantum electrodynamics.  I can't even reliably spell that, let alone explain it.

Ever since it was published in 1985, I've been buying (especially when I find a stack remaindered for less than half the list price) multiple copies of Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman - adventures of a curious character and giving them away to anyone whom I thought might benefit.  It's sort of autobiography, sort of ghost-written or taken-under-dictation by a sambista friend of his called Ralph Leighton.  Most people think it and he is brilliant but a substantial minority find endless anecdotes of Feynman's multiple talents intensely irritating.  So I'll recommend more whole-heartedly Genius - the life and science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick which is more balanced, less adulatory and which you can buy now 2nd hand on Amazon for $0.01.  Don't read?  Then another aspect of his interesting life is covered in the filum Infinity with Matthew Broderick as Feynman and Patricia Arquette as Arline his tragically dying first wife: it's available for €3 on

No comments:

Post a Comment