Feynman (just off centre) at Wangerooge in 1987
I started my career as a theoretical physicist, and in the late-80s I co-organised a specialist workshop on a small island, Wangerooge, off the coast of Germany (see above). I tried my luck and invited Richard Feynman (I had heard he was working in this specific area) and to my surprise and delight he accepted. You can read more about him and his outstanding achievements via WikiWand. There are also a number of posts on this blog that centre on him.
Even though he was an incredibly talented and imaginative physicist, with an outstanding popular touch, it’s interesting to note that even he had occasional bouts of self-doubt.
David and Judith Goldstein write (from here, extracted):
“In the immediate aftermath of his Nobel Prize in 1965, Feynman suffered a brief period of dejection, during which he doubted his ability to continue to make useful, original contributions at the forefront of theoretical physics. It was during this time that I joined the Caltech faculty. […]
At Chicago, Feynman and I shared a suite in the Quadrangle Club, the university’s faculty club. On the evening after his talk, we had dinner at the home of friends, Val and Lia Telegdi. The next morning, I wandered down to the faculty club dining room for breakfast a bit late. Feynman was already there, eating with someone I didn’t know. I joined them, introductions were mumbled but not heard, and I sleepily drank my morning coffee.
As I listened to the conversation, it dawned on me that this person was James Watson, discoverer with Francis Crick of the double-helical structure of DNA. He had with him a typed manuscript entitled Honest Jim (the title would later be changed by the publisher to The Double Helix), which he wanted Feynman to read, in the hope that Feynman might contribute something to the dust jacket. Feynman agreed to look at the manuscript.
That evening there was a cocktail party and dinner in Feynman’s honor at the Quadrangle Club. At the cocktail party the worried host asked me why Feynman wasn’t there. I went up to the suite and found him immersed in Watson’s manuscript. I insisted that since he was the honoree, he had to come down to the party.
Reluctantly, he did, but he fled after dinner at the earliest moment permitted by civility. When the party broke up, I went back up to the suite. Feynman was waiting for me in the living room. “You’ve gotta read this book,” he said. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll look forward to it.” “No,” he shot back, “I mean right now.”
And so, sitting in the living room of our suite, from one to five in the morning, with Feynman waiting impatiently for me to finish, I read the manuscript that would become The Double Helix.
At a certain point, I looked up and said, “Dick, this guy must be either very smart or very lucky. He constantly claims he knew less about what was going on than anyone else in the field, but he still made the crucial discovery.” Feynman virtually dove across the room to show me the notepad on which he’d been anxiously doodling while I read. There he had written one word, which he had proceeded to illuminate with drawings, as if he were working on some elaborate medieval manuscript.
The word was “Disregard! ”
“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!” […]