Milk and Lemon

Steven Shapin

  • Don’t You Have Time to Think? The Letters of Richard Feynman edited by Michelle Feynman
    Allen Lane, 486 pp, £20.00, June 2005, ISBN 0 7139 9847 4

Should you win the Nobel Prize in physics, a lot of people will get in touch. Some of them will be former students (wishing you well); some will be colleagues (saying they wish you well). Presidents and prime ministers, who have no clue what it is you’ve done, will write, expressing the nation’s gratitude for whatever it is you’ve done. Childhood friends will write, saying they knew that nerdiness presaged Nobelity. Old schoolteachers will write, basking in reflected glory and taking their share of credit. The in-laws will write, implicitly retracting their former low opinion of their child’s choice. From all over the world complete strangers will write, requesting photographs and autographs and asking for validation of a totally original unified field theory that somehow escaped Einstein’s attention. Fathers of miserably lonely adolescent geeks will write, wondering whether it will turn out all right. And so too will the adolescent geeks themselves, asking what you were like at their age and whether you think they’ve got a genuine vocation for science.

After winning the 1965 prize in physics, Richard Feynman seems to have answered them all. He had been notorious for not answering letters, but the occasion appears to have got the better of him. Most writers received a formulaic response. Feynman told Lyndon Johnson that the presidential telegram made his day; he gave his former senior colleagues a version of an Oscar speech, saying how he couldn’t have done it without them; he thanked his school and university teachers for their excellent service; he solicited practical advice from previous laureates about whether he’d have to walk backwards down the steps after receiving his prize from the King of Sweden (about which he was seriously nervous); he traded bonhomous badinage with girlfriends from the distant past; he cheerfully sent the photographs and supplied the autographs; he commended the amateur physicists for their bold conjectures, which, unfortunately, he was obliged to refute; and he told the geeks and their parents not to worry. It was good to be an obsessive. Find your obsession and cultivate it. Don’t worry about what the other kids think, and don’t worry about ‘balance’. You don’t need ‘two cultures’ if you can take one really seriously. If you’re obsessed with how a watch works, nobody should force you to figure out how a poem means. To the anxious father of a 16-year-old Alaskan nerd, Feynman wrote one of his gentler letters. When you’re a young obsessive, Feynman counselled, ‘you only want to go as fast as far and as deep as you can in one subject … But later on when you get older you find nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Because what you learned as a youth was that some one thing is ever more interesting as you go deeper.’ Finding out how things work is ‘the real fun of life’. What is it that would ‘make a smart 16-year-old stop for a minute and think’? ‘Nothing, now, I hope. But to fall in love with a wonderful woman and to talk to her quietly in the night will do wonders.’

Feynman won his prize – shared with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga – for ‘fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics (QED), with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles’. Feynman’s major contribution to the field was essentially a brilliant bookkeeping device, a set of stunningly simple graphic conventions (‘Feynman diagrams’) allowing physicists to describe the complex interactions of subatomic particles and to avoid some horrendous calculational problems that had bedevilled the field and threatened to block its advance. Initially, Feynman’s diagrams met with blank incomprehension – their visual idiom was gibberish to other theoretical physicists – but, with the help of Freeman Dyson at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, the diagrams soon became the lingua franca of QED physicists and their use was extended to several other sorts of physics.

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