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Feynman’s Lost Legacy

The incredible story of one human’s journey through the true nature of reality

Feynman and amidst bongo drums, his favorite pastime.

Through the eyes of a Homo Sapien, light waves of vastly different colors from the surrounding environment constantly slosh around and barrage the surfaces of our eyes, getting refracted in the lens, flipping the nice and focused collection of trillions of photons, all with their own unique wavelengths which then proceed to pass through the center of the eye, striking your optical disk where they are transmitted into little electrical signals that pass into your brain and visual cortex where your consciousness is presented with a vast amount of sensory data that it must wrap up nicely into a neat coherent hallucination of what we see as “reality”. This is not how the average human thinks about their own subjective experience, yet this is precisely how Richard Feynman saw the world; incredible, shocking, beautiful, often eliciting uncomfortable emotions in those not particularly interested in physics or science.

Feynman saw nature for who she really is and saw humans for who they really were. Later in his life when he was more spiritual and reflective, he had a series of interviews where Feynman shared his worldview and how it may apply to the average human, especially those uninterested in science or physics. Feynman was a funny and curious man with humor intimately tied to his unique wit and understanding of how the world really works. His last message to the world on his deathbed was: “I’d hate to die twice — it’s so boring”

The Homo Sapien brain evolved to understand how to hunt for animals and forage for berries, fruits, and edible plant matter, fundamentally not designed to understand how electron probability clouds occupy their respective energy levels in the atom. This is known. To understand the true nature of reality, we must remove human emotion and earthly connections to reveal to ourselves her true colors. Feynman realized this at a very young age, probably the reason he is considered to be the greatest scientific mind since Einstein. People forget his epic contributions to physics and our understanding of the true nature of reality because he wasn’t exactly the best husband.

The Feynman family, circa 1930.

Feynman, born in Queen’s, New York on May 11, 1918, was raised by Melville Arthur Feynman and Lucille née Phillips. Melville, born in Belarus, made a living as a sales manager while Lucille cared for young Richard and Joan. Feynman did not speak until around the age of three, yet his innate curiosity and wits began to emerge as he and his sister’s minds were forged by their father’s contrarian philosophies to think for yourself and question the current paradigm and orthodox realities we trap ourselves in mentally; as only natural by human standards. This was the seed for Feynman’s unique abilities to see nature for who she really is: objectively awesome and amazing and way too much information to handle at once for the human mind.

Feynman’s father constantly created little games and puzzles for both of his children. Mr. Feynman cultivated curiosity in his children by asking questions about the reality we occupy but seldom give a thought to. Feynman’s father would encourage his children to ask simple question’s about simple phenomena in their day to day lives such as why when you pull a wagon with a ball in it, the ball quickly moves to the back. Feynman’s father allowed his children to discover the property of matter that we call inertia: an object's tendency to stay at rest or conversely to keep moving unless acted upon by an external force. Melville then successfully instilled Newton’s first law into his children’s lives at a very young age. Joan Feynman tells a story of how Richard influenced her as a child:

“One night I had already gone to bed. I was supposed to stay in bed, but my brother got permission to come in and wake me up because there was an aurora in the sky over the golf course near our home in Long Island. It looked to me like marvelous lights in the sky moving back and forth. It was very impressive to me. My brother said to me that nobody knows what that’s from, which was true in 1930.”

Richard and Joan Feynman, circa 1928.

Joan went on to become an astrophysicist, making enormous contributions to our understanding of how the aurora (northern or southern lights) forms at the poles through the interaction of charged particles (solar wind) from the sun and Earth’s magnetosphere.

Joan was born four years after the death of her older brother, Henry, who died just weeks after birth. Feynman’s persona was molded naturally by both his parents yet it was Lucille who shaped Feynman’s infamous character of wit, humor, and keen ability to not take himself too seriously. Feynman quickly began to excel in mathematics and engineering from a young age, taking apart radios to deconstruct and demystify the magic of their operation to himself and others, offering to repair broken radios to neighbors and family friends in his small home laboratory.

Feynman attended Far Rockaway High School where his intelligence was assessed through an IQ test. Feynman scored 125, which was considered by his peers and his teachers as decent but not amazing. Later in his life, his peers suspected the IQ test to be flawed, only assessing verbal acuity, rather than mathematical acuity. When it came to math, Feynman was undoubtedly gifted, later achieving the highest scores possible on admission exams to Princeton graduate studies in Physics.

At the ripe age of 15, Feynman began displaying auto-didactic tendencies by teaching himself differential and integral calculus, trigonometry, advanced algebra, and analytical geometry. He began deriving his own way of performing half-derivatives, creating his own notation in the process. At age 17, Feynman applied to various Ivy-League schools but was rejected from a number of them because of his Jewish heritage, instead attending MIT for a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics. At MIT, Feynman’s unorthodox reputation became more and more known in the academic sphere there. Originally majoring in mathematics, Feynman quickly switched to electrical engineering, proceeding to switch one last time on something he knew he would do well in: the study of Physics. Feynman obtained an undergraduate degree in Physics in 1939 and was named a Putnam Fellow. Feynman absolutely despised honors, as outlined by the man himself:

“When I was in High School, one of the first honors I got was to be a member of the Arista, which is a group of kids who got good grades. Everybody wanted to be a member of the Arista. I discovered that what they did in their meetings was to sit around to discuss who else was worthy to join this wonderful group that we are. OK So we sat around trying to decide who would get to be allowed into this Arista. This kind of thing bothers me psychologically for one or another reason. I don’t understand myself.”

Feynman’s high school notebook. Circa early 1930s.

Feynman pursued a Ph.D. in Physics at Princeton where he achieved a perfect score on his entrance exam on physics and mathematics(nearly perfect), scoring poorly in English and History, understandably. Feynman’s thesis advisor was John Archibald Wheeler, an American theoretical physicist who was instrumental in the re-establishment of Einstein’s general relativity and the development of the first atomic weapon through the Manhatten Project. Wheeler also pioneered theoretical research in quantum gravity, formulating the infamous Wheeler-Dewitt equation in an effort to combine quantum mechanics and general relativity which is arguably the single most important goal of many physicists today. Wheeler’s relationship with Feynman was intimate as they both likely knew Feynman’s potential as a theoretical physicist and raw talent that in many ways outgunned Wheeler’s intellect.

At the age of 23, Feynman was almost immediately recruited to work on the Manhattan Project to help the Allies win WWII through the creation of the Trinity bomb. Along with Robert Oppenheimer (father of the atomic bomb), Feynman’s brain was weaponized as he helped with various calculations under the supervision of Hans Bethe, a German-American nuclear physicist that made key contributions to our understanding of quantum field theory, specifically quantum electrodynamics or QED. At this point in time, Feynman hadn’t even finished his graduate courses and was now a full-time employee at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Left photo: a young Feynman chatting with Stanislaw Ulam and John Von Neumann. Right photo: Feynman and his thesis advisor, John Wheeler, and many curious peers examine Feynman’s unique abilities in physics.

Feynman loved women, for better or worse, with his first wife being his high school sweetheart, Arline Greenbaum. They were together through his time at Los Alamos, writing letters to cement their passionate love for one another. Arline, 25, had contracted tuberculosis and died shortly after she and Richard decided to get married. Sixteen months after Arline’s untimely death, Feynman wrote a final love letter to her in the afterlife. In every sense of the word, Richard and Arline were soulmates yet at the same time, polar opposites in character and demeanor. Feynman ends his letter with this:

“My darling wife, I do adore you.

I love my wife. My wife is dead.”

The pain of losing someone you love is palpable and clear in his letter. Even in the face of his love’s mortality, Feynman’s humor is evident in his letter as well:

“PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.”

After working as a junior physicist for the Trinity bomb up until 1945, gaining serious notoriety as a brilliant physicist, Feynman, 27, was offered a teaching position at Cornell with a starting annual salary of $3,900 (around $56,000 today). It was there at Cornell Feynman began work on his true passion; the emerging field of quantum electrodynamics where he developed a novel technique in Quantum Field Theory calculations involving electron-photon interactions, Feynman Diagrams.

Feynman diagram showing electron-electron recoil. The collision and repulsion of the two electrons happens through the exchange of a virtual photon.

Feynman went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work on QED, along with Shinichiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger. Again, Feynman was appalled, even sickened by honors, later saying this about the prize:

“I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that the work is noble enough to receive a prize… The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal”

Feynman often spoke of his father’s influence on him and his worldviews concerning honors, stressing that it distracts from the real point; the true pleasure of finding things out by not pre-deciding anything and letting nature come out the way she really is: terrifying yet beautiful, infinitely complex yet understandable, vastly intricate yet simple in operation. These dichotomies tortured Feynman’s mind, yet his curiosity was so immovable that he found humor in it all. This doesn’t mean Feynman did not struggle with his intellect and how haunted he must of been witnessing man unlocking the true and immense power stored in atomic nuclei. The below quote is from an interview Feynman gave sometime in the peak of his career, almost frustrated trying to explain the feeling of confusion:

“when you’re thinking about something you don’t understand you have a terrible uncomfortable feeling called confusion — it’s a very difficult and unhappy business. And so most of the time you’re rather unhappy, actually, with this confusion, you can’t penetrate this thing. Now is it — the confusion because we’re all some kind of apes that are kinda stupid, working against this — trying to figure out to put the two sticks together to reach the banana and we can’t quite make it — the idea. And I get this feeling all the time that I’m an ape trying to put the two sticks together. So I always feel stupid. Once in a while while though — everything, the banana, the sticks go together on me and I reach the banana”

Feynman’s philosophy on life and the universe is generational in its effects, yet it seems we have forgotten Feynman’s core message: the true pleasure of finding things out by not pre-deciding anything and letting nature come out the way she really is: beautiful yet terrifying, awesome but immensely powerful. If any human knew the true nature of reality and the eschatological shock one experiences in certain situations, it was Richard Feynman. His intellect and ability to convey complex ideas in a coherent and human way is the reason he is considered to be the greatest scientific mind since Einstein.

Unfortunately, in recent years, his public image has worsened with the #MeToo movement since Feynman wasn’t exactly the best husband, was keenly promiscuous, and often spent time doing physics calculations at strip clubs, treating women more like objects of pleasure than as human beings with unique and complex emotions, just like himself. Feynman was smart, very smart. He knew what he was doing and continued to do it until his later years where he became more spiritual and human. There is no excuse for treating women this way, no argument there. The problem lays in the fact that Feynman inspired generations of young physicists to think for themselves and question the orthodox paradigm, whatever that may cost the individual, be it scientific heresy or social exile.

There is an article called Surely You’re a Creep, Mr. Feynman, written by Leila McNeill in 2019 which outlines Feynman’s often appalling treatment of women. While I completely agree with McNeill’s assessment of Feynman’s behavior towards the opposite sex, I do not think it merits a complete dismissal of his vast and far-reaching contributions to our understanding of light, matter, and the true nature of reality. Feynman’s true love was physics, as well as his long lost soulmate, Arline. Feynman carried this love that was robbed of him by nature itself to his deathbed and never forgot. This, while not a good excuse, possibly explains his poor treatment of women throughout his career.

Should we then dismiss Feynman’s worldview and philosophies about life, the universe, and the meaning of it all (literally the title of a book Feynman wrote in his later years) as he reflected during the twilight of his career at Caltech? I argue no. While Feynman clearly displayed some serious and concerning misogynistic tendencies, in no way should that mean we discount his core message to future human beings: using physics as a guide on how to feel significant in the vast, unbelievable, and indifferent cosmos. A message that transcends space and time, inspiring generations of physicists and scientists alike, including women and people of color, cementing the content of one’s character, regardless of their physical appearance, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status. This is the fundamental misunderstanding of Feynman’s lost legacy.

Richard P. Feynman journeyed through nature’s corridors and witnessed the multitudes and innumerable intricacies of mother nature and was traumatized by it. At the same time, this trauma hardened his mind into an enlightened, yet prudent character. His irreverence and quick-witted humor were symptoms of eschatological shock, making him possibly one of the most interesting people to have walked planet Earth. His lasting legacy is for us humans in 2020 to decide whether his moral principles in physics to guide one on how to not feel lost and alone in the incredible yet sometimes terrifying reality we occupy are something worth re-examining.

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Matthew Forman

Astroparticle physics PhD candidate at UC Irvine, Citizen Scientist, curious Homo Sapien. instagram: @human_wavefunction, twitter: @human_wavfnctn