Richard Feynman: Physicist, Raconteur, Musician, Humorist
By Bruce Poli
This is a new monthly column highlighting the giants of American culture who have lived or worked in Greenwich Village.
There’s Albert Einstein, there’s Stephen Hawking, there’s Isaac Newton. And then there’s Richard Feynman…winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965, and one of the most celebrated creative figures in all of science. His February 15, 1988 New York Times obituary proclaimed: “Richard P. Feynman, arguably the most brilliant, iconoclastic and influential of the postwar generation of theoretical physicists, died Monday night in Los Angeles of abdominal cancer. He was 69 years old.”
“He was the most original mind of his generation…a genius and a magician,” said Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ,
A world-renowned physicist who developed highly advanced equations as basic principles of quantum physics (electrodynamics), Richard Feynman was an innovative and humorous teacher, and a scientific and mathematical leader renowned for discovering (as a member of the Rogers Commission) that the rubber seal that enclosed the O-ring failed to expand in a cold environment (below 32 degrees)—which caused the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion that stunned the country on January 28, 1986.
My mother double-dated with Feynman and his future wife Arline Greenbaum at MIT in 1939. Her “beau” was Feynman’s roommate Peter Bernays (who happened to be Sigmund Freud’s great nephew).
When Feynman’s wife Arlene died of cancer at a young age; it was a devastating blow to him. Despite the tragedy, he married twice more, had two children, and went on to create a world of physics that no one had discovered before. His 1942 master’s thesis The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics, under the guidance of John Archibald Wheeler, has become as nearly as significant as Einstein’s theory of general relativity and e=mc2.
I hadn’t known Feynman had a connection with the West Village until Tim Jambeck, our WestView distribution director, mentioned that he had had a wonderful experience taking his class at the New School in 1986. “He was so much fun, he would run around the room demonstrating the principles of physical life,” Tim recalled.
In 1938 Feynman submitted a series of diagrams to the the Physical Review that helped a general audience understand quantum electrodynamics. That was when he was at MIT; subsequently, he taught at Princeton and Cal Tech.
Later in his life, in line with his legendary humorous character, Feynman famously participated in concert tours with the much-admired Tuvan Throat Singers of Mongolia, playing bongos to accompany their oral gymnastics. His collection of reminiscences, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character, helps define his place as a true Greenwich Villager (visiting professor), among so many of whom we can claim as our neighborhood’s inspirational provenance. The book, released in 1985, covers a variety of events and circumstances in his life. The anecdotes, based on recorded conversations he had with his close friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton, reflect the mind of a genius in its most comfortable elements—friendship and ideas.
Richard Feynman. Another great contributor to American life and culture who taught in the West Village! Our history is the stuff of legends…