Science & Environment

How Richard Feynman went from stirring jelly to a Nobel Prize

Richard Feynman
Image caption Physicist Richard Feynman was labelled "all genius, all buffoon" for his eccentric approach to science

Nobel Prize-winning and eccentric physicist Richard Feynman has been called a buffoon and a magician, but is lauded as a man who could make science accessible and interesting for all.

When I was a child I desperately wanted to be a scientist, but then it all went wrong.

Unfortunately, during the early years of my secondary school education, science became joyless.

It was a subject that seemed disjointed from the world even though it is the method that attempts to explain the world and the universe.

If only it were possible to place an automaton Richard Feynman in every school.

Children would leave each day wide-eyed with astonishment and eager to run home to look down their microscopes or mull over the movement of a bee in a flower border.

Richard Feynman did not understand how scientific knowledge could make anything dull.

He once related an argument with an artist who declared that scientists removed the beauty of flowers and made them seem dull. Feynman vehemently disagreed.

"A knowledge of science only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts," he said.

Jelly question

Anyone who has watched The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, a BBC documentary about Feynman broadcast in 1981, will know how much more interesting the world is if you look at it through his eyes.

For 50 minutes, Richard Feynman sits in an armchair and talks about his relationship with science.

"I do not feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose - which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It does not frighten me."

His fearlessness and enthusiasm are contagious.

The viewer leaves the film eager to learn and ponder why things are as they are. The staid monotony of existence, that adult malaise vanishes and questions of childhood resurface.

Why is the sky blue? Why is my face reflected in a window? Why can nothing go faster than the speed of light?

Feynman removes the viewer's fear of their own inquisitiveness.

Richard Feynman may have been engaged in the great questions of quantum mechanics, but that did not stop him wanting to know the answer to more trivial matters from an early age.

In his memoirs, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, Feynman explains how he felt on discovering Santa Claus was not real.

"I was not upset. I was relieved that there was a much simpler phenomenon to explain how so many children got presents the same night!"

Later, at university, his roommate returned home one day to find him leaning out of a window on a freezing winter's day, stirring something in a bowl.

Feynman had suddenly become intrigued by a problem - could jelly set at freezing temperatures if constantly stirred?

It is incidents like this that prompted physicist Freeman Dyson to consider him "half genius, half buffoon". He would later correct this to "all genius, all buffoon".

But Feynman was no ordinary genius.

An ordinary genius is someone like you or me, just many times better. As the late, great Nobel Laureate physicist Hans Bethe remarked: "Feynman was a magician. With a magician, you just do not know how he does it."

'Limited intelligence'

Despite the awe that his students and fellow scientists felt for him, Feynman declared: "I have limited intelligence and I use it in a particular direction."

With this "limited intelligence", he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga in 1965 for their work on quantum electrodynamics, the field of science which describes how light and matter interact.

But his father, a uniform salesman, had instilled in him not only a thirst for scientific knowledge but also a distrust of epaulettes and baubles and Feynman was no lover of accolades.

He was apparently very reluctant to accept the prize and was eager to remind people that just because someone held a position of authority, this was no signifier that they must be correct.

As Richard Feynman's father taught him the scientific method, it was his mother whom he thanked for the other part of his personality that made him such an irresistible character.

"She had a wonderful sense of humour. I learned from her that the highest forms of understanding we can achieve are laughter and human compassion."

Sadly, Richard Feynman died of cancer in 1988, aged just 69, but his zest for science lives on in his many published works.

Wherever I am travelling and whatever books I am reading, my bag always contains a Feynman book.

As documentary-maker Christopher Sykes said: "He made me wish I had been a scientist." It is a sensation I know all non-scientists feel when experiencing his work.

It may be too late for some of us to change course and take up a job in quantum mechanics. But it is not too late to become infected by the wonder and mystery of the Universe around us.

Or even just lean out of the window with a bowl of jelly and a hooded anorak as the snow falls.

Archive on 4 – The Feynman Variations, presented by physicist Brian Cox, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 18 September at 2000 BST, or listen afterwards via BBC iPlayer.

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