Everyone says that atheists don’t have heroes, as if heroes are somehow like gods. The “no-hero” claims comes across to me as a bit smug. Well, I have heroes, and one of them is Richard Feynman, a great physicist, science teacher, science popularizer, and fascinating human being. Yesterday‘s Telegraph, “Richard Feynman: Life, the universe and everything,” recalls the life and work of The Great Man. The occasion is the release of the animated video shown below, which, says the paper, has gone viral. I think it’s fine, for the sentiments are eloquent and true, but frankly I prefer to see the real Feynman himself, expatiating as he waves his hands in the air. Nevertheless, it’s worth revisiting, if for no other reason than to denigrate the unduly famous antiscientific poem of Walt Whitman, “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer”:
That poem has always irritated me immensely, with its smug assertion that scientific understanding detracts from wonder. Feyman dispels that bit of antiintellecturalism here:
Three excerpts from the Torygraph piece:
[Feynman] graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 and obtained perfect marks in maths and physics exams for the graduate school at Princeton University — an unprecedented feat. “At 23 there was no physicist on Earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science,” writes his biographer James Gleick.
. . . In the late Seventies, Feynman discovered a tumour in his abdomen. “He came home and reported, ‘It’s the size of a football’,” remembers his son Carl. “I was like ‘Wow, so what does that mean?’ And he said, ‘Well, I went to the medical library and I figure there’s about a 30 per cent chance it will kill me’.” Feynman was trying to turn his predicament into something fascinating, but it was still not the kind of thing a son wanted to hear from his father.
. . . With failing kidneys and in a great deal of pain he decided not to go through surgery again and went into hospital for the last time in February 1988. His friend Danny Hillis remembers walking with Feynman around this time: “I said, ‘I’m sad because I realise you’re about to die’. And he said, ‘That bugs me sometimes, too. But not as much as you’d think. Because you realise you’ve told a lot of stories and those are gonna stay around even after you’re gone.’”
There’s also a new BBC biopic about Feynman, “The Challenger,” which has William Hurt in the key role and concentrates on Feynman’s role in discovering the cause of the Challenger disaster (remember the O-rings?). The Telegraph also has ‘s an interview with Hurt about the movie here, A precis:
The 90-minute drama depicts Feynman as the outsider on the commission, fighting against the vested interests of the others, to arrive at the truth. “The bluntness of his character was something that I personally love, because I just hate being given the runaround, you know?” says Hurt. In a film full of talking heads, Hurt, in a shaggy wig, keeps things energised by imbuing Feynman with an exuberant intelligence that is gripping to watch.
Had Feymnman lived (he died in 1988), he would have been 95 tomorrow.