Christopher Sykes is a British filmmaker who has directed and produced over seventy films but is probably best known as the director of many films and television series with Professor Richard Feynman including ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’, ‘Fun to Imagine’ and ‘No Ordinary Genius’.
Feynman said, ‘If the film’s any good that’s to your credit and if it’s lousy, well, that’s your problem.’
On first memories of science
I had a book covered in – an exercise book in primary school, covered in yellow paper that came from the x-ray department my mother worked in. And on the outside I wrote, ‘Kit Sykes: Nature,’ because I used to be called Kit Sykes when I was a child, and it said ‘Nature’ and inside it sort of had drawings of birds and things. But, no, that’s just a joke. The first time I really got interested in science, I mean, I joined the BBC as a researcher in the science department by accident and that sort of got me interested in science because I worked on medical programmes and so on, but the thing that really turned me on was a book called ‘Disturbing the University’ by Freeman Dyson. Freeman Dyson is an English mathematician, a very brilliant one, and a physicist and, ah, he’d written this book about science and its relation to society. I can’t quite remember any longer what was so special about the book except that it was accessible and excited me. I thought, ‘God, this is really amazing what scientists sort of think about.’ And one of the things, I remember one of the things about it was it had an extraordinary story of a road trip across America with Richard Feynman. Dyson and Feynman shortly after the war had driven all the way from Cornell, I think, to New Mexico. They’d gone on this long road trip and talked about the war and the bomb and Dyson was very eloquent in this account of Feynman’s feelings of unease, possibly even guilt, about having helped build the first atomic bomb.
On a potential Freeman Dyson documentary
So the thing that really did get me first interested in science was Freeman Dyson’s book ‘Disturbing the Universe’ which was about 1979 I read it I think and as a result of reading that book I went to see Freeman Dyson to ask whether he’d be interested in making a documentary based on the book for ‘Horizon’ which I was working on then. And he said, yeah, he’d be quite happy to make a film but he thought it was much more important that I should make a film about Richard Feynman. And so I went to see Feynman and he wasn’t at all keen on making a documentary to begin with, or so I thought. I came to realise he was testing me out in some way, to see, just to find out a bit about me.
On meeting Feynman for the first time
What happened was, I phoned Feynman from England and I said, ah, would he be interested in making a film for the BBC Horizon series about his life and work and he said he wasn’t really, no. He was very busy and it didn’t really interest him. And then I told a lie. I said, ‘I’m coming to Los Angeles next month for various reasons and while I’m there, do you think I might be able to come and see you for ten minutes or so?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, you could do that. Don’t come specially but if you’re here anyway, um, why don’t you come and see me after my eleven o’clock lecture on such and such a day at Caltech,’ where he was a professor.
So I went to this lecture, I thought I’d go and watch the lecture just to see what it was like, and of course I couldn’t understand anything. It was very high level, sort of, about eight guys sitting around in shorts with their feet up and nobody was taking any notes and Feynman was giving a lecture on God knows what. I couldn’t understand a thing except right near the end he looked up at the clock and it said five to twelve and Feynman said, ah, he said, ‘This thing we’re talking about, there’s two ways of dealing with it. One is very messy and ugly and complicated and the other’s exquisitely elegant and very, very simple but we’ve only got five minutes so I’ll just tell you about the ugly and complicated one.’ And that seemed pretty funny.
So anyway, I met him after the lecture, we went to his office and he sat in his chair I remember, and he put his hands behind his head and he said, ‘Yes sir,’ and waited and I, ah, I felt nervous about it. Probably because he was a Nobel laureate and somewhat intimidating. Anyway I blathered on about sorts of ideas I had and so on and he didn’t look at all impressed and he said, ‘I think all of this sounds really dumb but I’ll tell you what, let’s go down and have some lunch.’ And he took me down to this café that he used to go to. He didn’t like going to the Athenaeum, the faculty club at Caltech because he thought it was sort of stuck up and you had to wear a tie I think. He didn’t like going there, he liked to go down the road to what he called the greasy spoon and he always had soup. So we had some soup and, ah, you know, it was alright but I found it very frustrating because I could see that he wasn’t going to make a film, that was my feeling, I thought he just wasn’t interested. But he was, he was sort of, saying, ‘Oh, you’re an English graduate. I don’t see the point of literature and all that sort of stuff.’ And I said to him that I thought he was being rather arrogant in this blanket dismissal of anything outside of science. I thought I’ve got nothing to lose and I felt a bit irritated and I said that. And then he sat back, and it was quite funny, and he smiled a little bit and he said, ‘Well I’ll tell you,’ he said, ‘I did read a novel once.’ He said it was called ‘Madame Bovary‘ and it was kinda nifty. And then he winked and I then I thought, well maybe this has all been some sort of test and so on. And he said, ‘Look, if you want to make a film, ah, tell me what you want to do and I’ll tell you whether I want to do it or not.’
On ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’
What we did was, decided the best thing was, to sit him (Feynman) down in a chair, ask him to take us right through his life and then see what to do next, you know, in terms of making a television programme. Well he was so riveting and so fantastic the way he talked, I mean I’d never come across anything like it and it was quite clear when we got into the cutting room that there wasn’t really any need to do anything, you know, except, ah, except just put in a few pauses here and there, a couple of narrative captions, maybe one or two stills at various points in his life, um, just to slow it up if anything because, you know, no matter how interesting someone is, if they keep on being interesting for too long you’d wish they’d shut up, so we’d put in these pauses and then we finished up with this fifty minute programme which we called ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’, his phrase, and, ah, you know, people really liked it. I’m glad to say he did too.
It’s quite funny because I thought, you know, sometimes you show people the rough cut of a film to see if there’s anything they don’t like about it or anything, just as a courtesy thing really. And I said to Feynman did he want me to send a copy of the rough cut and you could watch it and make comments on it and he said, ‘No, I don’t want to see it, I’ve got absolutely no interest in seeing it at all.’ He said, ‘If the film’s any good that’s to your credit and if it’s lousy, well, that’s your problem.’ But actually he did like it, he did write and say he really liked it.
In fact what he said, it was very funny, he wrote, when his book came out, which he wrote a couple of years later, ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!‘, and he sent me a copy of the book, which was nice, and in the front he wrote, ‘After your programme people think I’m wise so I’ve had to publish this to redress the balance.’
On what made Feynman special
It’s actually quite easy I think to put one’s finger on what was special. It’s that his understanding of what he was talking about, let’s say it’s physics, it wouldn’t matter what it was I don’t think, but his understanding of science was so profound, so complete, that it meant that he had no problem in explaining absolutely anything, well we’ll come back to that, perhaps not quite absolutely everything, but it meant he could explain things at whatever the level was of whoever he was talking to. That’s the simple thing. See, I think that what’s different is, I’ve met a lot of scientists and very often they can’t really explain it that well because they don’t understand it that well. They can do what they need to do professionally I think, but they don’t understand it with the depth and intimacy that Feynman understood these things with. I mean, it’s hard to explain this but, you’ve probably heard that he didn’t just learn all his science from books, he sort of pretty well reinvented the whole of physics. He sort of, he wouldn’t just learn what, you know, Newton’s equations were or whatever, he went to the trouble of deriving them himself so that he really understood. He somehow, I don’t quite know how to, how to, I know what the answer to your question is but I don’t know how to explain it. It’s that the depth of understanding of the subject was such that he could pitch it to anybody, i.e. me. There I was a sort of a scientifically untrained listener but if you watch the way he explains these things in ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’ and the ‘Fun to Imagine’ things, which are, you know, science for non scientists, it’s so beautifully done in such a way that he makes you, ah, it isn’t that he’s leaving stuff out it’s that he’s telling it at a level that’s appropriate for whoever’s listening.
It’s not a very good explanation but then I say he couldn’t explain everything of course, to a non scientist for the reason that he gives in ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.’ He says that unless you understand mathematics, you know, you really can’t appreciate the full depth of the physical understanding of nature and so on, you just simply can’t because, odd though it may be, the language that it’s expressible and understandable in is mathematics and so you have to know maths if you’re going to understand very much. That’s why at some point, when we did the series called ‘Fun To Imagine’ where he sits in an armchair explaining a few things, I ask him about magnets, why they repel and why they attract and what the feeling of repulsion between two magnets is, and I didn’t realise of course what sort of a question it is. It turns out to be a very profound question, I didn’t know that, and he takes, he goes to some trouble to explain why he’s not going to be able to explain to me, a non physicist, how they work without cheating, but he’s not going to cheat, he’s not going to use analogies or pretend that he’s explaining it in a way that would satisfy me. He pays me, and the audience I think, the compliment of saying, ‘Look, you don’t know enough to understand the answer I would have to give you so I’m not going to be able to give you one.’
On the importance of being curious
The importance of curiosity is that it’s probably the only thing that makes life worth living. I mean, I think no matter how old one is lucky or unlucky enough to live to be, I mean I hope one stays curious, um, I can sort of imagine being ninety and in a wheelchair with macular degeneration or something and I don’t think I’d want to stay alive if I wasn’t curious. You might say curiosity is the most important thing in the whole of life I would’ve thought. And of course we all exist on a spectrum of how curious we are. Feynman was obviously insatiably curious, not just about scientific things but about, ah, but all kinds of things like a country in the centre of Asia called Tannu Tuva, which no-one had heard of for a long time, which he, for a decade or so, with his friend Ralph Leighton became really obsessed by this place and finding out absolutely everything they could.
So yeah, curiosity, I would’ve thought curiosity is the great driver, obviously of science, and, well, should be of pretty well everything else I guess.