The legacy of Nobel Prize-winning American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (1918–1988) has a cult-like following more common to Hollywood icons than to scientists of quantum mechanics. This unique breed of fandom was born both of Feynman's brilliance – he worked on the Manhattan Project and inspired the field of nanotechnology — as well as his uproarious personality. Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman!, a memoir of his life published in 1985, popularized the scientist's antics from cruising around Pasadena in his customized van to his bongo-playing and safe-cracking hobbies. Among the scientist's many disciples is Seamus Blackley, a scientist and video-game designer best-known as the creator of Xbox. Calling himself “a recovering high-energy physicist,” Blackley is now CEO of the tech company Pacific Light & Hologram and on a mission to get Feynman's famed van into the Smithsonian. Before the many of the beloved scientist’s papers come to auction in History of Science & Technology (30 November, New York), we caught up with Blackley about what made Richard Feynman special and how he changed science forever.
How did you first learn about Richard Feynman?
My high school physics teacher Mr. Kleyboecker first encouraged me to read Surely You’re Joking, Mister Feynman! in the mid 1980s. I was a problem student for him. At the time I thought I was going to be a musician and, to be honest, was not paying too much attention to school. I'll never forget – I read the book on a family trip to Purgatory, Colorado. I started reading it in a hot tub and I wound up reading the entire book in one go. I had to get out of the hot tub because I was getting pickled. What a revelation – amid all of my aspirations for writing and music – suddenly here was this guy doing the physics thing from Mr. Kleyboecker's class in a way that felt cool enough that I could be interested in it. This was totally stunning. I immediately joined the cult of Feynman.
"Feynman was a bit of a showman. He would work for weeks on a problem figuring out every possibility, until he fully understood it. Then he’d keep his findings to himself and at the right moment, when somebody asked him a question, he would say 'Oh this is how it works and it’s really easy,' and everyone else would have their minds blown."
What do you think his biggest influence has been on you and for scientists of your generation?
If you’re smart enough to do physics, then you’re smart enough to realize you’re going to have to commit your life to it. It’s hard to describe the importance of having Richard Feynman as an example. There are 50,000 people like me, who would have been something else, doing physics because of him. And we're trying to do it creatively because he thought of it creatively. He gave people permission to do science in a human way – with a sense of fun and adventure that was frowned upon before. Permission to give things silly names and pull pranks and still be taken seriously. He opened up new ways for people to engage with science. The advances being made in the last few decades are extraordinary and accelerated and it has much more to do with Feynman than people realize.
Is there anyone in history you would compare him to?
Certain people have an understanding that is so far beyond even the ability of the smartest people. There are a lot of insanely intelligent minds working in science. Imagine then meeting somebody who is even miles past that. It’s an understanding so beyond your grasp that it feels like aliens must have told them. Feynman had this – a terrifying brilliance. Isaac Newton had it too. At a time when you could die of a toothache, he was able to accurately predict the movement of the planets and the stars. I say to people the reason Feynman could explain quantum electrodynamics to a nine-year-old, without watering it down, is because he really understood it. He didn't have to use jargon because he could see it all so clearly. Very few people in history have that.
A number of his notebooks and manuscripts will be offered in the upcoming History of Science & Technology sale. What do you think people will learn by seeing his handwritten notes?
Most scientists build their work on the backs of other people's research. But Feynman didn’t work that way. Part of his genius was that he wasn’t able to feel he had total mastery over something unless he could derive all of it himself. What these papers reveal is a guy starting from nothing and building everything from the first principle. He assumes nothing. And though he was amazingly good at solving these problems, he also had to work very hard. Feynman was a bit of a showman. He would work for weeks on a problem figuring out every possibility, until he fully understood it. Then he’d keep his findings to himself and at the right moment, when somebody asked him a question, he would say “Oh this is how it works and it’s really easy," and everyone else would have their minds blown. But this, of course, was his talent for performance because he had to work his ass off to get there. What I try to remember is that it wasn’t just one or the other – only the rarest people have both the intellectual capacity and the tenacity of work ethic to do for themselves what he did.
With part of his Nobel Prize profits, Feynman bought a van that he had painted with his "Feynman diagrams" that he would drive around Pasadena. You had the van restored and now are on a mission to have it added to the collection of the Smithsonian. How did you come across it?
I had assumed the van had been smashed into scrap metal but then I heard it was slowly rusting away at some book warehouse. The owner was Ralph Leighton, the ghost writer of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!. Ralph had been the son of the chairman of the Physics Department at Cal Tech. Over the years, he'd been very close to Feynman and bought the van from his family after he died. When I found out Ralph had the van, I offered to restore it. I’m a bit of a car collector and restore old cars for fun. As a physicist I also felt I had a duty – that I had been placed in this moment – to take care of this special piece of history. We tried to keep the van looking around the way it did when Feynman died, but make sure it was mechanically sound. Now the van has even appeared on an episode of The Big Bang Theory.
"He was a person that took the time to make sure that people really understood things and he would give of himself to them. There is a sort of tenderness underlying this monstrous intellect that was totally stunning and extraordinary."
Why do you think the van belongs in a museum?
It is something so uniquely American. Feynman bought the van with some of the proceeds from his Nobel Prize award. Then he had pinstripers near the dealership in San Diego customize it with his diagrams. It was the height of the 1970s cruising phase when everybody had a custom van with work on the side. There are still signs up on Colorado Boulevard that say no “No Cruising.” On Saturday nights, the roads would be blocked by people cruising up and down in their vans partying as they went. To me, there is a no greater example of an American scientist than this.
What is one your favorite things about Richard Feynman?
His sister Joan Feynman was a very capable physicist in her own right, though not many people know that. Joan said that when she was young nobody would teach girls anything about science. Without her asking, Richard quietly gave her all of his textbooks and tutored her. I think that's something that gets lost in conversations about him: he could be so incredibly kind and careful. We saw this with his first wife who he cared for while she had tuberculosis. He was a person that took the time to make sure that people really understood things and he would give of himself to them. There is a sort of tenderness underlying this monstrous intellect that was totally stunning and extraordinary.
Who do you see today bridging profound scientific thought with the public the way Feynman did?
The answer is that he invented being that guy. He was such a dynamic character and at the same time had all those characteristics of an actual genius. That’s why you see all the excitement about him. He’s three dimensional – not a person that’s popular in the media but not really taken seriously by the scientific community or a rock star in mathematics who can barely speak to a popular audience. He created this mold. For instance, when Stephen Hawking wrote A Brief History of Time, people knew how to treat a guy who was popular and brilliant, largely because Feynman had come before. Now the public understands that these people are important and why it’s cool to have that knowledge and how it makes you into a wizard of sorts. All of these figures stand in the shadow of Feynman. That’s his legacy.
If you had one question for Richard Feynman, what would it be?
Where is the key to the side door of the van?
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