When I was a teenager, I read many books about Dr. Richard Feynman. The irreverent but kind Nobel prize winner in physics became famous for his contributions to quantum mechanics. Though I’ve never understood quantum mechanics all that well, I’ve always admired Feynman, like many others.
To read Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is to hear about his upbringing in Queens, New York, where as a boy Feynman teaches himself advanced math, plays practical jokes and fixes radios during the Great Depression to help neighbors, and impresses all of them with his intellect.
He wrote many books which weave his personal history into historical events like the Manhattan Project and the Challenger disaster investigation. In each, he played a pivotal role. And throughout some serious times, including the loss of his first wife, Feynman displays a wonder of the world, an eagerness to play practical jokes, the will to speak his mind authentically, but kindly.
He spends days experimenting with ants to understand exactly how they communicate where sugar lies. He creates paper ferries to relocated them and test their ability to deal with change. And he uses the results of those experiments to free his apartment from ants without injuring a single one.
Over the weekend, I listened to a Feynman lecture. I’d read his voice and played in my head for hours reading all his book, but it was different to hear it.
Here he was, one of the most sophisticated minds of our time, and he explained complex topics with ease. Students adored Feynman. And in watching the video, it’s easy to see why.
He makes you laugh when talking about wave particle duality of electrons. He teaches you about the wonder he sees that drives him to love physics. He compares light waves and radio waves and gamma rays to a bug watching people jump into a pool and it all makes sense.
Feynman worked hard to deliver these presentations. He writes letters to his family about them. That desire to teach and share and simplify engendered tremendous amounts of goodwill. When Feynman died, Caltech hosted two ceremonies on the same day, and both exceeded capacity.
To take complex topics and simplify them in a way that invigorates people, that makes them dream and love the ideas; what a lasting and enduring gift. To me, Feynman is an inspiration, a model of someone who pushes the field forward and all the while gives back to the community. Despite his renown and fame and profound intellect, he was modest, even in accepting his Nobel.
The Prize was a signal to permit [my friends] to express, and me to learn about, their feelings. Each joy, though transient thrill, repeated in so many places amounts to a considerable sum of human happiness. And, each note of affection released thus one upon another has permitted me to realize a depth of love for my friends and acquaintances, which I had never felt so poignantly before.