Richard Feynman: Eccentric Genius and the “Adventures of a Curious Character” [What I’ve Been Reading]

This year, I’ve been reading many biographies of the great physicist Richard Feynman (1918–1988.)

A Nobel laureate, Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds. His academic life, acuity, life-philosophy, and ability to communicate science are inspirational to anyone pursuing his/her own life’s fulfillment.

In addition to his many scientific achievements, Feynman was known for his playfulness, varied interests and hobbies, and—perhaps most notably—his many eccentricities.

  • 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!' by Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (ISBN 0393316041) In a divorce complaint, Feynman’s second wife Mary Louise Bell complained, “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”
  • Feynman had the reputation of being a ladies’ man and offers many seduction techniques in his memoirs. His bestselling biography “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” devotes many pages to the art of picking up girls in Las Vegas.
  • In “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”, biographer James Gleick recalls Feynman’s tenure at Cornell: “There were entanglements with women: Feynman pursued them and dropped them, or tried to, with increasingly public frustration—so it seemed even to undergraduates, who knew him as the least professorial of professors, likely to be found beating a rhythm on a dormitory bench or lying supine and greasy beneath his Oldsmobile. He had never settled into any house or apartment. One year he lived as faculty guest in a student residence. Often he would stay nights or weeks with married friends until these arrangements became sexually volatile.”
  • 'Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman' by James Gleick (ISBN 0679747044) While a Professor at Caltech, Feynman would frequent a topless bar for a quiet office away from office. There, he used to work on scientific problems by sketching or writing physics equations on paper placemats and napkins. When local authorities shut down the topless bar, most patrons refused to testify in favor of the bar fearing that their families would learn about their visits. But not Feynman: he testified in favor of the bar by stating it was a public need frequented by craftsmen, technicians, engineers, common workers, and “a physics professor.”
  • When physicist Ernico Fermi died in 1954, the University of Chicago offered an astronomical salary (“a tremendous amount of money, three or four times what I was making”) to entice Feynman to back-fill Fermi’s position. Feynman responded, “After reading the salary, I’ve decided that I must refuse. The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do—get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things…With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I’d worry about her, what she’s doing; I’d get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn’t be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess! What I’ve always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I’ve decided that I can’t accept your offer.”

Richard Feynman with a Princess of Denmark at the 1965 Nobel Banquet

  • When conferred a Nobel Prize in 1965, Feynman sat at a table with a Princess of Denmark at the Nobel Banquet. During their small talk, Feynman introduced himself as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Princess remarked, “Oh. Well, nobody knows anything about that, so I guess we can’t talk about it.” Feynman was long-winded when he retorted, “On the contrary, it’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance–gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood–so it’s the subject that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!” Feynman later remembered that the Princess was flustered with his reply and recalled, “There’s a way of forming ice on the surface of the face, and she did it!”

For many more humorous anecdotes about Richard Feynman and the “Adventures of a Curious Character,” I recommend his extremely entertaining biographies:

Comments

  1. Jmoore says

    So, what does this man’s example have to do with encouraging people to have right attitudes? Seems like he was incredibly self-serving. Is that an attitude we want to encourage? Just some thoughts.

  2. says

    Great question. The key point is to appreciate that “people are imperfect.” Even the greatest amongst us have their idiosyncrasies or have problematic behaviors. I will refer to them in future blog articles: famous parents such as Gandhi and Reagan ignored their children, Einstein scoured his neighborhood’s sidewalks to collect discarded cigarette butts to smoke in his pipe, innovators like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos were/are famously ill mannered.

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