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Richard Feynman
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Richard Feynman
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Richard Feynman
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Historical Profile
1 October 2012

Richard Feynman

He “wasn’t looking for the answer to everything,” he said in his defence. “There might not be an answer to everything.”

Written by Ruby J Murray

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.

Discussed in this Story

All mass is interaction.

He grew up on a beach, Far Rockaway, New York. Even as a child, the beach was never a place of placid waters and golden sands for Richard Feynman. The natural world was in flux, in the sky as on earth. At night, he woke his baby sister Joan and took her out of their cramped family home and down to the golf course, where they stood on the cold grass and watched an aurora borealis wheel overhead, so beautiful; at once simple and infinitely complex. “No one knows why,” he told her in excitement. “No one knows how, no one knows why that happens.”

In the 1920 and 30s, through long summers, he opened up radios and pulled out their guts, listening for voices and static whispers. Later, people would call him a magician, a trickster. He would draw an unseen world, sit behind the windscreen of a weapons carrier and watch as the first atomic bomb exploded, found quantum electrodynamics, the “jewel of physics”, marry three times—once for love, once for misery, once for life—stomp and drum his way through every convention in his search for answers and insist on doubt at every turn.

At school Richard only had time for math and science. He fell out with his teachers, argued with his principals, and was dubbed the “Mad Genius” of his graduating class. He was crazy for better questions, better answers… and for Arline Greenbaum, the beautiful girl who lived down the road, whose long hair was the fascination of every boy in Far Rockaway, who played the piano and swam wildly off the beach, out to the deeper water.

Sixteen years old, a gauche obsessive, Richard went to MIT, where he refused to be socialised. He steamed over the necessary social niceties and conventions, none of which he knew. He talked too fast, inhabiting every twitching edge of his skin. He felt slights keenly, held grudges forever. But he topped every physics class that MIT offered. And he won over Arline Greenbaum.

Richard would forget what happened the day of his MIT graduation, but not Arline’s presence there. “That’s all I remember of it. I remember my sweet girl.” There were few areas of knowledge outside of science, for Richard, few areas beyond understanding. But Arline was.

“Love is not a science,” he would tell a packed lecture hall at Cornell University, years later.

Despite Richard’s Jewish heritage —“[his] physiognomy and manner,” wrote one MIT professor in an attempt to placate the Princeton faculty, “show no trace of this characteristic and I do not believe the matter will be any great handicap”—Princeton accepted Richard as a graduate physics student. At the same time, he was faced with the first problem he could not solve. His sweet girl was developing fevers. A lump in her neck, that came and went. Arline was diagnosed with TB. Richard sacked libraries, chased diagnoses, argued with doctors and tests, and asked Arline to marry him, wanting to save her.

At Princeton, graduate studies were grinding to a halt as war work took over the university. When Richard was approached by a professor to join a secret government war project, he said no. He couldn’t. His thesis and Arline were all consuming. “At least come to this meeting and hear what we have to say,” insisted the professor. Richard went. He left with his head full of the project, and Hitler, and a world he could save. He tied up his thesis, and married Arline. It was just the two of them alone in a Staten Island registry office, holding hands with strangers as witnesses. He couldn’t kiss the bride, for fear of infection.

Then came the Manhattan Project, the bomb. Los Alamos, the desert, high fences and complete secrecy. Richard held court over the human computers who cranked out numbers day and night, danced frantic jigs through the compound, exchanged letters with Arline in code. “We’re not little people, we’re giants,” she wrote to him as he taught himself to crack locks and pick cabinets. Every weekend, he drove down the New Mexico mountain in a car borrowed from a man—who would turn out to be a Soviet spy—to visit his 22-year-old wife, who lay in bed in a sanatorium on the plains.

Germany surrendered in May, but nothing could stop the bomb.

Arline died of TB on June 16th, 1945.

A month later, Richard sat behind the windscreen of a weapons carrier and watched as the world cracked open and the first atomic weapon went off in the desert.

Something inside him exploded too. He went wild that night with the other scientists, celebrating their success. A month later; Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

He’d always been so proudly rational. Realistic. But after the bomb, nothing seemed worth building anymore. Seeing bridges go up, Richard would become angry. Why try, when soon the next bomb would fall? What was the point? Of any building, of any permanence?

He was one of the first to leave Los Alamos. Back at Cornell, he focused on complex physics for beauty and pleasure, things that span and twirled through the air. He refused anything that would be of use. And so it was that he guessed one of his wild guesses, the Feynman Diagrams; simple pictures that replaced football fields of mathematical calculations used to understand the behaviour of subatomic particles. That was the difference between a genius and a magician, one colleague said when describing Richard. With a genius, you can see how they get their results. You know that with enough hard work, you might get the same result. But with a magician, it seems impossible. Their minds leap across the gaps.

From Cornell to Caltech, Richard continued to spiral. He drank, too much, too hard. On a sabbatical in Rio de Janeiro he threw himself into Newton’s attempt to mathematise nature, the music of the samba, the mad slapping rhythms of the drums, the street parties: the women, the liquor. He scared himself.

In desperation, he proposed in a letter to one of the women he had dated briefly at Cornell after Arline’s death, Mary Louise Bell. She moved to California with him. It was a disaster. His work was soaring, out into the realms of the possible, but love was not a science, and Mary was not delighted, or charmed, and four miserable years later they divorced.

By agreement, he pleaded Extreme Cruelty. Her testimony records her telling the judge that the sound of his drums drove her mad, but worse: his work. “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens… He did calculus while driving his car, while sitting in the living room and while lying in bed at night.”

He “wasn’t looking for the answer to everything,” he said in his defence. “There might not be an answer to everything.” The universe might be like an onion, folding out, deeper and deeper with each wrapped layer. Or it might be simple.

Forty years old, in Geneva, on the edge of a different ocean, a different beach, Richard met another woman, Mary, an English au pair fifteen years his junior who rolled over in her sky blue bikini and told him bluntly that she already had two boyfriends. You don’t have to be my girlfriend, he said. Move to California and be my maid instead, my caretaker. A year later, she did. And a year after that she married him. They had two children together, Carl and Michelle. Michelle still says, “It took me a long time to realise that not everybody was like my father. That no one was like him.”

And Richard was happy, at last. With or without the answers. He stood and grinned and let the world give him a Nobel Prize. He drew the topless bargirls in the dive off campus, and drove his colleagues crazy. He told his children mad stories of perspective.

Few people knew he was dying. The cancer took eight years to beat him down. In his final days he was as prolific as ever, cracking problems, hounding friends—what are you working on, what are you working on—sitting in front of the nation and dipping a rubber band into iced water to show how the infamous Challenger Shuttle exploded in the sky. He had simple answers, that started so many complicated questions.

Many years before his death, in the dark days before he found love again, Richard stood in front of a lecture theatre of eager undergraduates at Cornell, his twitchy hands spinning out over the blackboard as he tried to explain the beach, the ocean.

“It is always as complicated as that… For example: Is the sand other than the rocks? That is, is the sand perhaps nothing but a great number of tiny stones? Is the moon a great rock? If we understood rocks, would we also understand the sand and the moon? Is the wind a sloshing of the air analogous to the sloshing motion of the water in the sea? What common features do different movements have? What is common to different kinds of sound? How many different colours are there?”

After he died, a letter to Arline was found in his papers, written two years after her death, frayed at the edges from a lifetime of being transferred from pocket to pocket.

“I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead… My darling wife. I adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead.
P.S. Please excuse my not mailing this – but I don’t know your new address.”

It is always as complicated as that.

Ruby J Murray

Ruby is an Australian writer, journalist and copywriter based in San Francisco, USA. Her 2012 novel Running Dogs is based in Indonesia and looks at the fraught relationship between Australian aid workers and Jakartan culture. Read more: rubyjmurray.com

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