Lot 67
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  • 1965 Nobel Prize Medal in Physics, awarded to Richard Phillips Feynman for his fundamental work in Quantum Electrodynamics
Nobel Prize medal, struck in 23 carat gold, designed by Erik Lundberg and manufactured by the Swedish Royal Mint. Obverse with bust of Alfred Nobel left, in field left, ALFR·/ NOBEL; behind head to right, NAT·/MDCCC/ XXXIII/ OB·/ MDCCC/ XCVI; at left edge, before bust, E· LINDBERG 1902. Reverse with, INVENTAS · VITAM · IUVAT · EXCOLUISSE · PER · ARTES (Life is enhanced through the arts of discovery) — REG · ACAD · — SCIENT · SUEC · (The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences); below, incuse, on tablet in exergue,  R · P· FEYNMAN / MCMLXV, Nature, in the form of a goddess, standing left, her right arm holding a cornucopia, a figure representing the Genius of Science, standing right, holding up the veil of Science; in field, left, NATURA, in field, right SCIENTIA / ERIK / LINDBERG; the edge marked MJV (Mynt ochs Justeringsverket [Royal Mint and Assay]) GULD 1965; weight: 182.57 g.; diameter: 66 mm (2 5/8 in.). Housed in the original red morocco case, top of case with border of a double-gilt rule and gilt dot-fillet, corner tools, and recipient's name (R.P. FEYNMAN) in the center; the fitter interior lined with suede and satin; interior case edges with gilt dentelles.  WITH: Richard P. Feynman's Nobel Prize Diploma: 2 vellum leaves (13 1/4 x 9 1/4 in; 336 x 235 mm) laid down in a crushed red morocco binding, covers with a border of 3 gilt fillets, the front cover with central gilt laurel enclosing Feynman's initials.  Both leaves with calligraphic inscriptions in Swedish; the left-hand leaf with a design in ink, gouache, and gilt, by artist Elsa Noreen meant to give an idea of the movement of electrons around the protons. Protective cloth clamshell case.  AND: Richard P. Feynman's 1965 Nobel Festival Personal Program, in original oblong black leatherette case (6 x 3 1/2 in) AND: Traduction des Discours à la Fête Nobel 1965. Oblong 8vo. (5 3/4 x 4 in), verso with doodles of Feynman diagrams drawn by Feynman, apparently during the Nobel ceremony.


Feynman, Richard "Space Time Approach to Quantum Electrodynamics." IN: The Physical Review, Volume 76, Number 6, September 15, 1949; Feynman, Richard & Ralph Leighton. "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!" Adventures of a Curious Character. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1985; Feynman, Richard & Ralph Leighton. "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" Further Adventures of a Curious Character. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1988; Feynman, Richard; Michelle Feynman, ed. Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Path. The Letters of Richard P. Feynman.  New York: Basic Books, 2005; Gleick, James. Genius. The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992; Halpern, Paul. The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality.  New York: Basic Books, 2017; Sykes, Christopher. No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994

Catalogue Note

THE NOBEL PRIZE AWARDED TO RICHARD PHILLIPS FEYNMAN —AMERICA'S GREATEST PHYSICIST AND ONE OF THE MOST BELOVED SCIENTISTS OF ALL TIME  — FOR HIS GROUNDBREAKING WORK IN REMAKING THE THEORY OF QUANTUM ELECTRODYNAMICS. Along with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichiro Tomonaga, Feynman shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for their "fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles." The three of them had independently come up with different ingenious ways to reconcile the electromagnetic field theory of the 19th century with the quantum mechanics of the 20th. While Tomonaga and Schwinger approached the problem using highly mathematical methods, Feynman tackled it in his own highly creative and original way; by creating his iconic "Feynman Diagrams", innovative pictures that provided a clear visual explanation of  every possible interaction between electrons and photons. 

This first general recognition of the significance of quantum electrodynamics was given for work that, in the words of Feynman’s biographer, James Gleick, “tied together in an experimentally perfect package all the varied phenomena at work in light, radio, magnetism, and electrity.” Gleick writes further that at least three of Feynman’s later achievements might also have won a Nobel Prize: “a theory of superfluidity, the strange, frictionless behavior of liquid helium; a theory of weak interactions, the force at work in radioactive decay; and a theory of partons, hypothetical hard particles inside the atom’s nucleus, that helped produce the modern understanding of quarks” (Genius, pp. 8–9). From his crucial work on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos in the 1940s through his pivotal testimony at hearings of the presidential commission on the space shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, Richard Feynman was recognized as a genius by both the community of elite physicists and by the world at large.

Feynman had begun the work for which he would win the Nobel while still an undergraduate at MIT, where he had read the groundbreaking work Principles of Quantum Mechanics by his hero, theoretical physicist and pioneer of both quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics, Paul Dirac (who shared the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics with Erwin Schrödinger for "the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory.") Feynman was often compared to Dirac, though only in terms of intellect, as physicist Eugene Wigner (Dirac's brother-in-law) best put it: "He is a second Dirac, only this time human." (Gleick, Genius, p. 184). Feynman openly acknowledged Dirac as the inspiration for his work, as he explained in his Nobel lecture:

"I worked on this problem about eight years until the final publication in 1947. The beginning of the thing was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when I was an undergraduate student reading about the known physics, learning slowly about all these things that people were worrying about, and realizing ultimately that the fundamental problem of the day was that the quantum theory of electricity and magnetism was not completely satisfactory. This I gathered from books like those of Heitler and Dirac. I was inspired by the remarks in these books; not by the parts in which everything was proved and demonstrated carefully and calculated, because I couldn't understand those very well. At the young age what I could understand were the remarks about the fact that this doesn't make any sense, and the last sentence of the book of Dirac I can still remember, "It seems that some essentially new physical ideas are here needed." [see lot 100, Feynman's undergraduate copy of Dirac's Principles of Quantum Mechanics] So, I had this as a challenge and an inspiration. I also had a personal feeling, that since they didn't get a satisfactory answer to the problem I wanted to solve, I don't have to pay a lot of attention to what they did do." (Richard Feynman, Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1965, "The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics.")

The work for which Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize revolutionized the field of quantum electrodynamics, and physics in general. What was perhaps just as revolutionary was his attitude about life, and the decision that ultimately led him down the path to the Nobel: to do only what he liked, and only for the fun of it, whether or not it was important.

Feynman made this decision while a professor of theoretical physics at Cornell, where he had gone to work with Hans Bethe, whom he had met during the war while the two worked together to develop the atom bomb at Los Alamos as part of the Manhattan Project:

"I went there with Hans Bethe, who I had gotten to love while we were at Los Alamos. I had to give two different classes, and I prepared my classes very rapidly because I was used to wartime action at high speed. I expected to go right back to continue the work that I'd interrupted, but for a long time I didn't seem to be able to do anything. I couldn't sit down at any real problem, and work stuff out... So I got the idea that I was burnt out by the war experience, and I would never accomplish anything after that. I have no idea why I got into this depressive condition over my own work, but I did.... All during this period, there was a kind of inflation of salaries and interest in physicists because the other universities were trying to develop and everybody wanted to get the physicists. I was offered higher and higher salaries by different universities. I wanted to stay at Cornell with Bethe, so I wasn't paying much attention to that, but nevertheless it bothered my psychologically because I knew that I was burnt out, and I certainly wasn't worth the money. People expected me to succeed, and I wasn't going to succeed—or it seemed that way to me.... Finally, the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein and all these people were, sent me an invitation to join them. Now I thought this was crazy, that they were absolutely insane. They didn't know that I was burnt out, but even so, it was too high-class a job. It was so ridiculous that it set me thinking, and I suddenly realized, while I was shaving, "I can't live up to what other people expect me to do." They expected me to be wonderful to offer me a job like this, and I wasn't wonderful, and therefore I realized a new principle: "I'm not responsible for what other people think I am able to do. I don't have to be good because they think I'm going to be good." And somehow or another I could relax about this. I thought to myself, "I haven't done anything important, and I'm never going to do anything important, but I used to enjoy physics and mathematical things. It was never very important, but I used to do things for the fun of it." So I decided I'm going to only do things for the fun of it.

"That afternoon while I was eating lunch some kid threw up a plate in the cafeteria. There was a blue medallion on the plate, the Cornell sign, and as he threw up the plate and it came down, the blue thing went around and it seemed to me that the blue thing went around faster than the wobble, and I wondered what the relation was between the two... and I started to play with this rotation, and the rotation led me to a similar problem of the rotation of the spin of an electron according to Dirac's equation, and that just led me back into quantum electrodynamics, which was the problem I had been working on. I kept continuing now to play with it in the relaxed fashion I had originally done, and it was just like taking the cork out of a bottle —everything just poured out, and in very short order I worked the things out for which I later won the Nobel Prize." (Richard Feynman, in: Sykes, No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, pp. 71-73)

As Feynman hilariously recounts in "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!", he first found out that he won the Nobel from a phone call received at 4 am, which he was not happy about:

"'Hey! Why are you bothering me at this time in the morning?'

'I thought you'd like to know that you've won the Nobel Prize.'

'Yeah, but I'm sleeping. It would have been better if you had called me in the morning.' And I hung up.... Then I began to think, 'How can I turn this all off? I don't want any of this!' So the first thing was to take the telephone off the hook... I went down to the study to think: What am I going to do? Maybe I won't accept the Prize. What would happen then? Maybe that's impossible..." 

Feynman did of course accept the Prize in the end, making a beautiful and inspirational banquet speech, stating that the reward was in the pleasure of finding things out, and in the joy and affection he felt from friends and family:

"The work I have done has, already, been adequately rewarded and recognized. Imagination reaches out repeatedly trying to achieve some higher level of understanding, until suddenly I find myself momentarily alone before one new corner of nature's pattern of beauty and true majesty revealed. That was my reward... The Prize was a signal to permit them [friends & family] 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 upon another has permitted me to realize a depth of love for my friend and acquaintances, which i had never felt so poignantly before." (Richard Feynman "Banquet Speech", at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1965).