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Caltech Grad's Donation Honors Late Professor

March 12, 1989|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

An alumnus of the California Institute of Technology has given the school $1.5 million to fund a professorship honoring late faculty member Richard B. Feynman.

The donor, Michael Scott, a 1965 Caltech graduate, was a student of Feynman, who was both a Nobel Laureate in theoretical physics and a best-selling autobiographer.

Feynman, who was on the Caltech faculty for 38 years, died last year at the age of 69. A charismatic teacher and brilliant scientist, Feynman added to his reknown as a member of the presidential committee investigating the Challenger disaster.

While television cameras rolled, Feynman plunged an O-ring like the one that failed during the tragic shuttle flight into a glass of ice water and demonstrated how cold impaired its resilience. Ultimately, the committee attributed the catastrophe to O-ring failure caused by low temperatures at the launch site.

Scott, who lives in Sunnyvale in Northern California, was the first president of Apple, the pioneering personal computer company. He first encountered Feynman as a freshman in 1961. Feynman was developing a new course that was to revolutionize the way physics is taught in colleges, a course that would eventually be called "Feynman physics."

On the first day of class, Scott recalled, "in the hall, there were 183 new freshman and a bowling ball hanging from the three-story ceiling to just above the floor. Feynman walked in, and without a word, grabbed the ball and backed against the wall with the ball touching his nose. He let go, and the ball swung slowly 60 feet across the room and back--stopping naturally, just short of crushing his face. Then he took the ball again, stepped forward, and said: 'I wanted to show you that I believe in what I'm going to teach you over the next two years."

Scott, 46, said he wished "particularly to recognize Feynman's genius as a teacher." Scott will not participate in the selection of the new professor, but Caltech President Thomas E. Everhart said the candidates' teaching ability will be an important consideration.

Scott said his memories of Feynman include evenings the physicist spent visiting students in their campus residences.

"He would come and have dinner and afterwards he would play the bongo drums and, unofficially, teach people how to pick locks." Feynman had taught himself how to pick locks and crack safes while working for the United States government on the top-secret Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb.

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