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The Cult of Richard Feynman

His Peculiar Immortality Springs From More Than His Scientific Achievements

December 02, 2001|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All these years gone, and Richard Feynman is still a force. dead more than a dozen years, but an icon nonetheless.

Wander through the Caltech bookstore, and there he is, enshrined in a floor-to-ceiling photograph that takes up much of a wall. The only other prominent images in the store are those of Albert Einstein, and those are just posters.

On the shelves where books by Caltech authors are on display, there is an entire Feynman section, with its array of biographies and memoirs, CDs and videotapes. One book is devoted, of all things, to the renowned physicist's amateur sketch work. Farther down the shelf is an item grandly titled "Feynman's Lost Lecture," as if anything bearing his name is found treasure. A CD dubbed "Safecracker Suite" begins with Feynman banging his beloved bongo drums, and segues into stories of his antics while working on the first atomic bomb.

His presence is felt in other places as well. Take, for instance, the hills of Altadena, where artist Jirayr Zorthian has built the "Richard Feynman Wall of Passion" that mirthfully celebrates Feynman's love of earthly delights (sex, not science).

Feynman is there in the office of Helen Tuck, his secretary of many years, who points to her keepsake on the shelf--a framed sheet of paper on which Feynman doodled sketches and incomprehensible (to mere mortals, at least) equations.

He's there with Ralph Leighton, who came to know the physicist as they spent time drumming together. Then Leighton, son of Caltech professor Robert B. Leighton, devoted a large part of his life to burnishing the Feynman mystique through books and a Web site (www.scs-intl.com/online). Outside these circles of academia and friends, most Americans might best know Feynman for a moment in 1986, when he stood before television lights and dramatically demonstrated what caused the Challenger space shuttle disaster. His props were a piece of rubber, a glass of ice water and a small clamp, but the simple exercise was a turning point for the investigation into the shuttle explosion.

Such is the legacy of Feynman, Nobel laureate and subject of a play starring Alan Alda now running in New York. In 1999, Physics World polled scientists, asking them to rank the greatest physicists who ever lived. Feynman came in seventh, behind Galileo. In his life he put together the puzzle of quantum electrodynamics, earning him the physics Nobel in 1965. And it is said in the scientific community that he could have won as many as three other Nobels, so wide were his interests and so acute was his intellect.

He was, to many in the lofty world of theoretical physics, a kind of magician who could bore a hole to the heart of a knotty problem with an ease that left others in awe. He could envision how something worked where others could not. Yet Feynman's peculiar immortality springs from more than his science, perhaps even aside from it. After all, the Nobel roster lists hundreds of men of astounding intellect. But could any of them match Feynman's vaunted extracurricular activities? Or the relentless cultivation of image, which he preferred as that of a ladies man and ne'er-do-well?

This was a man who pondered and polished his lines until they gleamed, then dealt them out as offhand remarks. A man who, when asked in his waning months if he wished to read his prepared obituary, replied: "I have decided it is not a very good idea for a man to read it ahead of time; it takes the element of surprise out of it."

Caltech colleague Kip Thorne says it was that combination of fun and intellect that made Feynman perhaps the most magnetic physicist of the 20th century: "The people I know admired his breadth of interest, his curiosity and his love of life. Most of us tend to have much narrower lives than he, and many of us regret at times that we don't have the breadth of experiences and relationships as he did."

Caltech Vice-Provost David Goodstein recalls that in 1966, as he was finishing his graduate work at the University of Washington in Seattle, Goodstein was invited to deliver a lecture at Caltech as a prelude to his being hired there. He was whisked from the airport to a lunch--at Feynman's favorite topless bar, where he sometimes ate four or five times a week. Sitting there amid the strippers and across from the storied physicist, Goodstein could think of only one thing: "No one in Seattle is going to believe this."

It was a reaction his host undoubtedly anticipated. As the noted physicist Murray Gell-Mann gently complained after his former colleague's death, Feynman "surrounded himself in a cloud of myth, and he spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself."

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