The Curious Character: Richard Feynman

"I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there."

There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician. —Hans Bethe

It seems as if, once again, the week is developing its own theme. It began with Stephen Hawking’s birthday on Sunday, followed by the release of Lawrence Krauss‘ new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing. And a couple of days ago, while looking something up for yesterday’s Shelley post, I happened upon a collection of four Richard Feynman videos. On Friday morning, the Richard Dawkins site featured a link to a series of videos on Open Culture titled “The Richard Feynman Trilogy: The Physicist Captured in Three Films.”  According to site,

It’s another case of the whole being greater better than the sum of the parts. Between 1981 and 1993, documentary producer Christopher Sykes shot three films and one TV series dedicated to the charismatic, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988). We have presented these documentaries here individually before (some several years ago), but never brought them together. So, prompted by a post on Metafilter, we’re doing just that today.

In keeping with the spirit of the celebration of these great scientific minds that we’ve been looking at this week, I want to share this collection of videos with you. When we listen to them, be it Hawking, Krauss, or Feynman (or any of the others for that matter), we can’t help but be reminded to always stay curious and to never stop thinking. We should watch them and remember to have and live rich intellectual lives.

The first film is “The Pleasure of Finding things Out,” and I’ve included it here. In it, Feynman talks about his excitement about science and scientific discovery. When speaking about the film,  Harry Kroto (winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry) stated that,

“the 1981 Feynman [production] is the best science program I have ever seen. This is not just my opinion – it is also the opinion of many of the best scientists that I know who have seen the program. It should be mandatory viewing for all students whether they be science or arts students.”

The other two films (and one television show) can be found here, and they include “Fun to Imagine: Jiggling Atoms,” “The Last Journey of a Genius,” and lastly  “No Ordinary Genius.” I spent a large part of last night watching them, and I recommend you watch, too, as you find the time.

There are also a series of short videos titled the “Feynman Series” by the creators of the “Sagan Series.”  In these Feynman discusses Beauty, Curiosity, and Honors. These are short excerpts of his longer videos, and are also well worth a look.

Moreover, many of his writings and lectures have been compiled and published by his associates or students, such as Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! What Do You Care What Other People Think?, and Classic Feynman. The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a collection of his Caltech lectures, is surely one of the most noteworthy. He’s truly a joy to read.

Stay curious and enjoy!

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5 thoughts on “The Curious Character: Richard Feynman

  1. The Feynman Series should be used for school assemblies or something, everyone should see those at some point!

    Also, I have to give a shout out to ‘What Do You Care What People Think?’, loved that on audiobook.

  2. I think the three volume Feynman Lectures is quite a difficult series; and I normally would not recommend it to any but the most advanced students. While the series was nominally Feynman’s lectures for Caltech undergraduates, the books take a rather sophisticated view of the subject and I think someone without a firm grounding in physics already is likely to find the books obscure. The third volume of that series, also, is dated in its coverage (as one might expect for a text on quantum on quantum mechanics that is nearly 50 years old — a lot has happened.) Feynman himself considered the lectures a failure, because they were so inaccessible to so many of the students. If you do read them, make sure you get the recent corrected version (published only this year) because of the huge number of typographical errors in previous editions.

    The Feynman books I would recommend is QED (ISBN 0691125759), (“QED” is the abbreviation for Quantum Electrodynamics) which is intended for a popular audience and presents some very challenging physics in a very accessible form.

    The second books which I would recommend is Feynman’s The Character of Physical Law (ISBN 0679601279). This is an excellent book that explains what it means to do physics, and it is also intended for a popular audience.

    Both of these books are intended for mere mortals, and the first one, in particular, presents physics that most people do not know. Moreover, they are written in a very fresh and original style.

    I am afraid I cannot share your enthusiasm for the “memoir” volumes of Feynman (Surely You’re Joking and What Do You Care) . First, they were not written by Feynman, but rather were ghost written by his friend Ralph Leighton (based on Feynman’s bragging about his various exploits). I do not think Leighton presents Feynman as a very attractive character in those books; in particular, Feynman’s treatment of women (such as his wife who he treated atrociously, strippers, etc.) is reprehensible and his general cruelty towards other people leaves one rather depressed at the end. I often use Feynman as an example of how genius lands in people indiscriminately, favoring neither “nice guys” or “mean guys.”

    Or, another way to put it — “wanting to meet the author because you like his book is like wanting to meet the goose because you liked the foie gras.”

    • I probably agree with you more than I’d care to admit on a few points you made.

      Yes, the “Lectures” are not for the lay reader. I majored in physics for three years and still found them quite technical, but I suppose that as it should be. And yep, I do recall all the typos, my inner English major wanted to take a red pen to it 🙂

      I loved QED and can’t believe I forgot to mention it! It’s one of my favorites, too. I think its the best example of his reputation as the “great explainer.” He’s able to take relatively difficult topics and communicate them in such a way as to not lose the non-phycisists in the audience.

      In regards to the Leighton books, I suppose I have a bit of a personal history with them them that informs my opinions. “Surely You’re Joking” was given to me as a gift by one of the only people that I had met at the time that shared my love of physics and science. It was a special gift and I suppose it made me love it.

      And yes, I agree about “wanting to meet the author….” I learned early on that I can love the art and not the artist. In fact, I’m working on a post about the illustrations of Ernst Haeckel. Kind of an example of that same thing.

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