Adventures of a Curious Richard Feynman

Published: 2022-07-06

Sitting around a campfire listening to stories passed on from generations brings with it a feeling of wonder and joy for the adventures told from long ago.

Each one of these stories is special on its own and they could never be told in a bad way.

But you reach another level of captivation when someone who is a great storyteller holds the talking stick and their vocal cords rumble.

Each word lingers in your mind as you anticipate the next set of syllables, waiting to laugh, to cry, and to love. It's a whole new experience.

This is how I felt reading What Do You Care What Other People Think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman. I have a deep admiration for Feynman's beliefs on life, knowledge, and science, but that admiration went deeper still as I followed the stories of his life told by the man himself.

Feynman, You Sexist Pig!

Shortly after giving lectures at CalTech, Feynman was accused of being anti-women because of two stories he told to illustrate different points in his Feynman Lectures on Physics. In response to the letter he received, Feynman wrote, "Don't bug me man!" and sent it off.

About a year later, he was in San Francisco receiving an award he was given from writing those books, but not all was well. A group of protesters were in front of the lecture hall giving out flyers with black, large letters titled, "FEYNMAN SEXIST PIG!"

As he started his talk, he addressed the protestor's:

I'm sorry that my short answer to your letter brought you here unnecessarily. There are more serious places to direct one's attention towards improving the status of women in physics than these relatively trivial mistakes–if that's what you want to call them–in a textbook. But perhaps, after all, it's good that you came. For women do indeed suffer from prejudice and discrimination in physics, and your presence here today serves to remind us of these difficulties and the need to remedy them.

Even though the American Association Physics Teachers has given me an award for teaching, I must confess I don't know how to teach. Therefore, I have nothing to say about teaching. Instead, I would like to talk about something that will be especially interesting to the women in the audience: I would like to talk about the structure of the proton.

Handled with grace and care.

Infinite numbers

Richard Feynman was an "uncle" to several of his physicist's kids. One such nephew was Henry Bethe, son of Hans Bethe who was a 1967 Nobel Prize winner. After the passing of Feynman, Henry sent a letter to Feynman's wife retelling a magnificent story that illustrates Feynman's playful attitude and ability to simplify the complex. Henry recalls:

Dick [Feynman] turned to me and said, "Did you know that there are twice as many numbers as numbers?"

"No there are not!" Henry quipped back.

But Feynman wouldn't give up, insisting that Henry name a number.

"One million" A big number to start.

"Two million."

"Twenty-seven."

"Fifty-four."

I named about ten more numbers and each time Dick names the number twice as big. Light dawned.

"I see; so there are three times as many numbers as numbers"

"Prove it," said Uncle Dick. He named a number. I named one three times as big. He tried another. I did it again. Again. He named a number too complicated for me to multiply in my head. "Three times that," I said.

"So, is there a biggest number?" he asked.

"No." I replied. "Because for every number, there is one twice as big, one three times as big. There is even one a million times as big"

"Right, and that concept of increase without limit, of no biggest number, is called 'infinity'."

Running around

After the space shuttle Challenger exploded, Feynman got a call asking to be apart of a committee to investigate the accident. When he heard the job would be in Washington, Feynman had an immediate hesitancy to accept the role. His biggest question was–"how am I going to get out of this?"

Luckily, though, he didn't make that decision on his own. He called on numerous colleagues and mentors for advice, but the one that was most helpful came from his dear wife:

"Look I said." "Anybody could do it. They can get somebody else."

"No," said Gweneth. "If you don't do it, there will be twelve people, all in a group, going around from place to place together. But if you join the commission, there will be eleven people–all in a group, going around from place to place together–while the twelfth one runs around all over the place, checking all kinds of unusual things. There probably won't be anything, but if there is, you'll find it." She said, "There isn't anyone else who can do that like you can."

Being very immodest, I believed her.