Feynman Day At The Bloomsbury


Last Saturday, I went to ‘A Day Celebrating Richard Feynman’ held at the Bloomsbury Theatre in London.

Feynman is well-known to physicists the world over (he won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965) but also much more widely through his books (such as ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman?’) as well as through his role on the Commission into the Challenger disaster. It was the 95th anniversary of his birth.

I was fortunate enough to meet Feynman in person as I co-organised the last conference he went to (held at Wangerooge, an island off the coast of North Germany) so I was very interested to join in the celebration! I went along with a friend, Ron Donaldson, who is a consultant in creativity and innovation (hence the interest in Feynman). The full event spanned the afternoon and evening – we attended just the afternoon session (for travel reasons, we both live outside London).

The Bloomsbury is a small but quite intimate theatre, well suited to this sort of event. The afternoon session was split into two one-hour parts; the first was technical and the second oriented around the videos made about him.

The first talk was by John Butterworth, Professor of Physics at nearby UCL. It focused on what a Feynman Diagram is and how the idea is incredibly useful in figuring out the complicated interactions of fundamental particles, including the recently discovered Higgs particle.

I was familiar with this material as I’d previously worked in this area (when an academic) and it was interesting to see how he went about his explanations (of some quite complicated physics) in the relatively short space of time allowed, something that is always tricky. There was a good selection of questions afterwards so it obviously hit the mark!

The second part centred on some captivating interviews with the producers Christopher Sykes and Christopher Riley.

Christopher Sykes is a TV documentary producer who made three very well-known programs with and about Feynman (he’s done loads of other interesting work as well, including contributing to the fascinating Web of Stories video collection). Christopher Riley produced the latest documentary on Feynman, The Fantastic Mr Feynman, which was aired on BBC2 last Sunday. Robin Ince handled the interviewing well, using a light touch and encouraging some really interesting insights from both speakers.

Talking about his well-known video work with Feynman in the ‘80s, some of the stories that Sykes told that particularly caught my attention were (I’m going on memory here):

1. Feynman and Dyson

The idea for the series of interviews with Feynman came about as a bit of an accident. Freeman Dyson, another celebrated physicist, had written a well-received book ‘Disturbing The Universe’ (well worth a read by the way) and Sykes thought that this might be a good basis for a programme. However in discussions about this, Dyson strongly recommended interviewing Feynman instead! This was along the lines of ‘Feynman is so special, capturing anything about him is incredibly important’. Not a ‘good thing to do’, important! This response obviously tells you quite alot about Dyson himself as well as his high respect and admiration for Feynman. He’s written a perceptive review of a couple of recent books on Feynman here.

2. Talking From The Chair

It says alot about Feynman’s charisma and presence that he can hold your attention whilst just sitting in a chair and talking. No glitz or props at all! Here’s an example in case you’ve not seen any of the videos (produced by Sykes in the ’80s):

This particular video is interesting in it’s own special way as it gives such a brilliant example of a productive and imaginative conversation. It starts from the question of how can you understand the feeling you get when you move two magnets together i.e. the sense of repulsion or attraction.

In the video, there’s some very reasonable confusion at the start, and most non-scientists would identify with the questions that Sykes asks. The key point comes when Sykes says ‘I must say I think that’s a perfectly reasonable question’ and Feynman agrees with him (‘an excellent question’) and then goes off on a fascinating discussion of the role and limitations of the question “Why?”. The main point is that you can only explain something in terms of concepts that the other person understands and is used to. However, talking around this point and elucidating it in different ways and guises is incredibly illuminating. The clip also gives a glimpse of Feynman’s inimitable personality as well as his determination (and ability) to make things exceptionally clear.

3. Buffoon and Genius

Feynman has a great reputation as a showman, and this sometimes leads to criticisms. However Sykes offered the suggestion that this was a method that Feynman used to handle the fact that he was so different from other people but still needed to get on with and communicate with them. A tantalising insight.

4. Feynman’s Problem Solving Algorithm

  • Write down the problem.
  • Think very hard.
  • Write down the answer.

Unfortunately this doesn’t have general applicability, especially to mere mortals!

5. Reputation as a Womaniser

Feynman has a (somewhat vague) reputation as a womaniser, as well as perhaps giving a rather macho view of women. Sykes strongly questioned this viewpoint and was curious where it originated from as he’d never come across any solid facts to support it.

On this theme, when I was a postdoc at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, I’m sure I remember seeing a poster for some talks at Caltech where one of the speakers was jokily mentioned as Fine Dickman!

Anyway, maybe this was all part of the deliberate smoke-and-mirrors act, perpetuated by Feynman as well as others?

6. Death

Feynman died of cancer in February 1988 and Sykes spent time with him during the terminal stages. One of the delicate issues that cropped up was whether they could or should discuss his views on dying and death. In the end he decided to bring it up and after thinking about it, Feynman decided it was best not to talk about it.

This is a rather poignant topic. When I invited Feynman to a specialist workshop I was organising (I’d heard through the grapevine that he’d been working on the subject area), I wasn’t aware of his illness. To our surprise and delight, he accepted and the meeting was held in September 1987. Together with a colleague, we transcribed his talk. Afterwards, via his secretary, Helen Tuck, he complimented us on our write-up. She also told us that he’d reviewed the paper from his hospital bed, which naturally came as quite a shock.

Feynman Wangerooge 1987Feynman at the workshop held in Wangerooge, Germany in 1987. He’s in the middle, just to the right.

7. Living Life

It was impressive that Sykes and Riley both had the strong view that Feynman communicated and encouraged an irrepressible enthusiasm for life, as, for example, typified in this quote:

“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.” – Richard P. Feynman

Something for us all to think about…

Top picture credit: here.

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