Feynman and Climbing Mont Blanc

Poster for a current Caltech Archives special exhibition on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth (1918-1988)

I’ve written previously (see here) on how the famous physicist Richard Feynman figured out how to get out of a creative block that occurred after his initial revolutionary successes (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965):

That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!”

However recently I came across an article by John Preskill of Cal Tech which mentions another viewpoint attributed to Sidney Coleman (who was a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Harvard University). Preskill is the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech:

Feynman often told students to disregard what others had done, to work things out for oneself. Not everyone thought that was good advice. One who disagreed was Sidney Coleman, a Caltech grad student in the late 50s and early 60s. Coleman says: “Had Feynman not been as smart as he was, I think he would have been too original for his own good. There was always an element of showboating in his character. He was like the guy that climbs Mt. Blanc barefoot just to show it could be done. A lot of things he did were to show, you didn’t have to do it that way, you can do it this other way. And the other way, in fact, was not as good as the first way, but it showed he was different. … I’m sure Dick thought of that as a virtue, as noble. I don’t think it’s so. I think it’s kidding yourself. Those other guys are not all a collection of yo-yos. Sometimes it would be better to take the recent machinery they have built and not try to rebuild it, like reinventing the wheel. … Dick could get away with a lot because he was so goddamn smart. He really could climb Mont Blanc barefoot.” 

There are lots of nice stories and insights in the Preskill article (entitled ‘Feynman After 40’) which is well worth a read.

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