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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

The Feynman book was more lighthearted than thoughtful, but there was at least one glimpse of a more serious side--a couple of paragraphs reflecting on the atomic bomb. He was sitting in a New York restaurant, wondering to himself what the radius of the Hiroshima bomb might be if it were overlaid on America's largest city. "And I would go along and see people building a bridge, or they'd be making a new road, and I thought they're crazy , they just don't understand, they don't understand. Why are they making new things? It's so useless." In 1946, with the Manhattan Project disbanding, Feynman was invited to become an associate professor of theoretical physics at Cornell. It was there that he began his study of quantum electrodynamics, which would eventually earn him the Nobel.

The field itself is the study of the interaction of subatomic particles. The problem for scientists was the increasing difficulty of using existing formulas to explain, predict or quantify what was being observed in the laboratory. Enter Feynman, who developed a series of particle interaction diagrams that made it all understandable. The "Feynman diagrams" made scientific calculations and predictions much more accurate.

The breakthrough also bore the Feynman trademark of tackling a problem just to see if he could do it. The work that won him the Nobel, for instance, began when he tried to figure out the physics of a wobbling plate that caught his attention in a Cornell cafeteria. "There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was," he later wrote. "The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate."

At another point, Feynman took up biology long enough to make a small but significant contribution to the study of DNA. It might have been a career high for a lesser scientist, but for Feynman, it was just another riddle to be solved.

After three years at Cornell, Feynman grew tired of the isolated atmosphere of Ithaca, N.Y., where he had never really put down roots. Other schools were recruiting him, and after a year's sabbatical in Brazil, he brought his act to Caltech in 1951.

One of the first things Feynman did upon his arrival in Pasadena was marry a woman he had dated at Cornell. The proposal was made to Mary Louise Bell by mail while Feynman was in Brazil. The relationship soon soured, though it would be four years before the couple divorced. The divorce agreement required that Feynman confess to "extreme cruelty," which, according to her testimony, included his practice of working calculus problems before getting out of bed in the morning.

At Caltech, his work in the fields of superfluidity and radioactivity burnished his already bright star. And he was joined by Gell-Mann, one of the other great theoretical physicists, making Caltech the center of the universe for the field. The two scientists worked together on a theory that protons, which form the nucleus of an atom, are made up of "partons" or, as Gell-Mann dubbed them, "quarks," now a fundamental element of quantum physics. At the same time, Feynman was gaining notoriety as a lecturer who was as entertaining as he was enlightening. Goodstein, the vice-provost, described the presentation style as a "longshoreman giving a lecture in physics." Eventually, two years' worth of Feynman's lectures were published in three volumes dubbed the "red books" and officially titled "Feynman Lectures on Physics."

For all of his intellectual energy, however, Feynman seldom read anything and generally took very little interest in other scientists' work, much to their exasperation. Tuck says he barely glanced at the scientific papers often piled high in her office.

But he could be a fearsome presence when others were presenting their work, his withering questions often leaving a lecturer stammering. The noted science writer Timothy Ferris remembers watching Feynman harass a colleague over his inability to answer basic questions. Finally Feynman said: "You know, this is stuff we do for a living. It would be helpful if you could give us something we could use."

He was equally difficult with those who did not hold his interest. When the historian Robert B. Crease once asked him a question about the progress of science, Feynman grew surprisingly angry: "It's a dumb question. I don't know how to answer it. Cancel everything I said."

After his third marriage, to Gweneth Howarth in 1960, Feynman's life took a more stable turn, with children (Carl and Michelle) and a large house in Altadena. But even that relationship began in a Feynmanesque twist. They met on a beach on Lake Geneva. Gweneth, who grew up in Great Britain, was working as a nanny. Feynman, after much effort, convinced her to work for him as a domestic in California. It was not uncommon in the beginning of their time together to see Gweneth driving her employer to Caltech in the morning. Gradually, the relationship turned romantic and matrimonial.

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