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It's a Complex Equation

Friends, family of the late physicist Richard Feynman have much praise and a criticism or two for 'QED.'

April 17, 2001|JANA J. MONJI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When she was a teenager, Michelle Feynman remembers playing a very Hollywood game--casting the story of her life. She picked Alan Alda to play her father.

Alda is doing just that in the world premiere of Peter Parnell's "QED" at the Mark Taper Forum. Michelle's father, Richard Feynman, wasn't an ordinary man--he had worked on the Manhattan Project and was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965 for his research in quantum electrodynamics, or QED.

In 1985, his book written with Ralph Leighton, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" made the New York Times bestseller list. Feynman later served on the Rogers Commission, investigating the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Although he died of cancer in 1988, he remains a folk hero in Pasadena's intellectual community of Caltech, where he taught.

"QED" may not explain quantum electrodynamics, but for Feynman's closest friends and relatives who would be Alda's hardest critics, the actor has aptly encapsulated the quirks of this curious character who once graced the world stage of science.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 18, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Theater story--The name of Richard Feynman's cousin was incorrectly reported in a story about the play "QED" in Tuesday's Calendar. Her name is Peggy Phillips Bucci.

Parnell interviewed Feynman's children, Michelle and Carl; his sister, Joan Feynman; and his secretary, Helen Tuck, while working closely with Leighton, who had written the book "Tuva or Bust," the inspiration for "QED."

The play is set on an eventful evening in 1986, with the Caltech professor discussing possible cancer treatments, reminiscing about his first wife Arline's death, performing in a school musical, welcoming visitors from Russia and talking to an attractive community college student from his Physics X course.

Feynman's cousin Peggy Wright, who once worked for Gordon Davidson, "QED" director and Taper artistic director, said the script "portrayed only one small dimension of the scientist. He was just a hero all the way through." The play, Wright says, should have shown more "warts." "He could be pigheaded, explosively angry and irrational," she says.

Alda Taps 'Excitement and Love of Discovery'

But the play did show Feynman's playful side--his flamboyant costume and enthusiastic preparation for the musical "South Pacific" and his infamous drum playing. At one point in the play, the scientist recalls how he would crack into files containing classified documents dealing with the atomic bomb.

Michelle Feynman thought Alda had the same "excitement and love of discovery" and "a sense of my father's rhythm." Both she and Wright thought Alda had "the same twinkle in his eye."

Tuck said she cried when Alda's performance took her back to the dark days of despair when her boss was battling cancer.

But she thought some reviewers were misled by an article in the Atlantic Monthly by George Johnson, "The Jaguar and the Fox," that dealt with the relationship between Feynman and Caltech colleague Murray Gell-Mann, another Nobel Prize-winning physicist. According to Johnson, Feynman was better at packaging himself while Gell-Mann excelled in packaging ideas and ultimately was the more important physicist, who desperately wanted to become as famous as his Caltech colleague.

Tuck, who served as secretary to both men, said the article "made them sound like bickering schoolchildren, and that was not a true picture."

Gell-Mann, who currently lives in New Mexico, said he hasn't read the article or seen the play. Via e-mail, he said that "several people advised me not to read the article in the Atlantic Monthly--on the grounds that it might provoke a cardiac episode of some kind."

Kip Thorne, a former colleague of both men who is now the Feynman professor of theoretical physics at Caltech, said the two physicists had a "jocular, give-and-take, teasing relationship."

"QED" doesn't do much to uncloak one murky aspect of the Feynman legend--his attitude toward women. As recounted in one of Feynman's books, people protested at one of his lectures, calling him a male chauvinist. Parnell's script touches on some of Feynman's activities--sketching female nudes and frequenting strip bars.

In Act 2, Alda's character shares the stage with a persistent young student, Miriam Field, played by Allison Smith. That character was not based on a real person. However, Thorne recalled a female physics student like the character in the play with whom Feynman had a close, flirtatious relationship. But, he said, "she had an extremely quick mind." She was a friend of the family and would trade mathematical puzzles with him, Thorne said, while the character in the play was "much less Feynman's equal."

Tuck said the characterization of the student was "not a good representation of women in science" who are "pretty serious people."

"That girl," she added, "was an airhead."

Feynman Put Women 'On a Pedestal'

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