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Heroes of Science Episode 7

I was very, very nervous.  I knocked on Richard Feynman’s door and he opened it.

On Feynman’s letter

I was a student in the mid-1980s at the California Institute of Technology, Caltech, where Feynman had been on the faculty since about 1951 and I actually did a course that Feynman taught.  It was called The Potentialities and Limitations of Computers and it was about the physical limits.  Feynman was interested in how small we could make computers, how fast we could make them, all that kind of stuff.  But also my real connection with Feynman is that I had actually seen him on television in England before I went to America to become a student and I’d watched him on a BBC Horizon programme called ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’ and it was just basically Feynman’s head and shoulders talking for 50 minutes to camera, about his childhood, his father, his children and that kind of stuff.  And my mum has no interest whatsoever in science, and I can never explain to her why people in Australia are not standing on their heads, and she watched this programme and she said, ‘What an interesting man’.  So when I was a student at Caltech I had an idea.

I went over to the physics building – the Lauritsen Physics Building – got in a lift, I went up to Feynman’s office and, incredibly nervously – I was very, very nervous – I knocked on Richard Feynman’s door and he opened it and I explained that I’d seen him on television, my mum had got no interest in science but she thought he was really, really interesting and I said, ‘Do you think you could write to my mum?  Because if you write to my mum I might have a better chance of teaching her physics.’

And he actually did write to my mum and he wrote, ‘Dear Mrs Chown.  Ignore your son’s attempts to teach you physics.  Physics is not the important thing.  Love is.  Richard Feynman.’

On being at Caltech at that time

I mean, it was pretty incredible to be at Caltech.  I’d seen Feynman in pictures, and the Feynman lectures on physics, he’s playing his bongos, I saw him on television, but to actually see him in real life and to, sort of, pass him frequently on the campus, that was pretty amazing.  But it was also very shocking because when I arrived at Caltech he looked incredibly frail and old and ill.  And he was recovering from major cancer surgery but he recovered and he taught and that’s when I did the course that I did.

On Feynman as a communicator

Well, firstly, Feynman is more than just a science communicator, he’s a brilliant scientist.  He was a brilliant scientist but he is also, was also, a fantastic communicator.  He had something unique.  When I was at Caltech there were many, many very bright professors.  It has an incredible number of Nobel prize winners, but many of them were unintelligible.  They were unable to remember what it was like before they understood.  But Feynman could remember what it was like before he understood.  And that’s incredible, because he probably understood calculus when he was, like, nine, but he put himself in the shoes of someone who didn’t understand.  I don’t know why he could do it, but he could. 

And his criterion of whether he understood anything was whether he could explain it to anyone.  It was just a quirk of his that, you know, if someone asked him about something in physics and he started talking about it and realised he couldn’t explain it he knew that he didn’t understand it.  And I think that’s because words and pictures…he was a very visual scientist, he said in a lecture that I went to, ‘You can know more than you can ever prove’.  So, in other words, he had intuition.  He would often get to the end of a calculation having not actually done the calculation.  He would know where it was going and fill in the gaps afterwards.  So he was very visual, he used words a lot rather than equations, so actually the method he used to do science turned out to be something you could also use to talk to ordinary people.