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Richard Feynman
"On the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics."

"If that's the world's smartest man, God help us."
Lucille Feynman, on Omni magazine naming her son the world's smartest man.

Drummer, lockpicker, artist, teacher, and raconteur... who also won a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics. Richard Feynman was considered one of the greatest scientific minds since Einstein. Even more than his contributions to science (which are numerous and varied), though, he is best remembered today as a personality, an irreverent, skeptical, iconoclastic embodiment of what a real scientist ought to be.

Born in Far Rockaway, New York in 1918, Feynman showed a passion for science at an early age. Much of his bedroom was taken up with electrical apparatus, and he often made pocket money by fixing radios. He attended MIT, and had nearly finished his postgraduate work at Princeton when he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project.

As the youngest group leader at Los Alamos, he was often sought out by the older, more eminent scientists as a sounding board, because he was one of the few young physicists who wasn't too awestruck to disagree with them. During this time, he also became skilled at picking locks and breaking into safes, usually by guessing or stealing the combination. He would later brag that he had opened safes containing the greatest treasure of all time: the secrets of the atomic bomb.

Given both his importance in history and his larger than life personality - and the fact that a lot of the current generation of science fiction writers read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman at an impressionable age - he's becoming increasingly popular as a Historical-Domain Character.


This scientist's life provides examples of:

  • Absent-Minded Professor: Mostly averted, although he did have trouble telling left from right.
    • It's rather funny to think that he opposed for years the theory of parity violation in weak interactions - which, simplifying very much, states that you can tell left from right at a subatomic level.
  • The Casanova: Who says all scientists are nerds?
  • Cool Guys Don't Look At Explosions: Averted when Feynman calculated that an ordinary automotive windshield would be able to block most of the harmful UV radiation from the Trinity atomic bomb test as opposed to the heavily tinted welding goggles provided to everyone else who were also told to face away from the blast. Feynman believed he was the only human being to witness the detonation live.
  • Cool Old Guy: Eventually became this, particularly his role in the Challenger investigation.
  • Einstein Hair: A mild case. During the Challenger investigation, he had to be reminded to comb it by another commissioner.
  • Famous Last Words: "I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring."
  • Hard On Soft Science: Very much. That is, he was interested in such areas and was very annoyed to discover that beyond the neurophysiology starts the endless swamp of speculations he as a physicist just could not take seriously. And then managed to convey his opinion on the matter to surprising number of people.
  • Layman's Terms: He was a fan of this, famously saying that if one can't explain a topic to a freshman, then one doesn't truly understand that topic. He was later disturbed when he found that he couldn't explain the basis for fermions and bosons in layman's terms.
  • Morton's Fork: He escaped the draft by flunking the psychological evaluation, and nicely sent-up Catch-22 when he found out he failed, in a letter to the army board.
    • It should be noted that he didn't intentionally flunk, he simply answered honestly. For instance, when the psychologist asked if he thought people stared at him, he was about to answer no, until the psychologist added, "For instance, are any of (the people in the waiting room) looking at you right now?" Since it was a small room with nothing else to look at, Feynman did some quick mental division and said, "Yeah, probably two of them." When the psychologist told Feynman to turn around and check, it turned out that Feynman was exactly right - but in pointing out those two people, of course this attracted everybody else's attention, as they were wondering why he was pointing at them. Since the psychologist didn't even bother to look up from his notebook to notice this, he wrote that Feynman had "narcissistic tendencies with paranoia".
  • Mouthful of Pi: He wanted to memorize Pi up to the 762nd digit, at which point there is a string of six nines in a row, so that he could say "...nine nine nine nine nine nine, and so on" and thus mislead people into thinking Pi was a rational number. This misconception is amplified by the fact that up to that point, the longest string of repeating digits is only 3 digits long. This sequence has been named the Feynman Point in his honor.
  • Nerds Are Sexy: Possible Trope Codifier.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Or perhaps "Obfuscating Innocence." His memoirs live this trope.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Feynman was the Red to Julian Schwinger's Blue.
  • The Prankster: Well known for his tendency to pull off all sorts of pranks that were often intended to make some larger point. Working on the Manhattan Project did nothing to curb his enthusiasm and he took particular glee in poking holes in some of the more pointless security policies.
  • The Rival: Many of his colleagues found him abrasive and unprofessional, but his two greatest rivals were Julian Schwinger (with whom he, along with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, shared the above-noted Nobel,) and Murray Gell-Mann.
  • Sarcastic Confession: He perpetrated a prank in his fraternity, and to find out who did it, the fraternity president asked each member in turn to swear his innocence. When it was Feynman's turn to swear (after a bunch of other members swore their innocence), he admitted his guilt, but the president answered, "Cut it out, Feynman, this is serious!", and moved on to the next person. When he confessed for real much later, nobody remembered that he had already admitted it, and they accused him of lying during the swearing.
  • Sucky School: He hunted down a lot of the dumb gobbledygook displacing any real science from the education once it was brought to his attention. Wrote Lucky Numbers, O Americano, Outra Vez!, Judging Books by Their Covers.
    The main purpose of my talk is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught in Brazil!
  • Theme Tune: This was written about him.
  • Thememobile: According to Dr. Michael Shermer he once met someone who in the 1980s asked the guy next to him at a stop light why he had Feynman diagrams painted on his van. Answer? "Because I'm Feynman!" The van is still around today.
  • Unreliable Narrator: His memoirs have a bit of this due to his obfuscating innocence.


Richard Feynman in fiction and pop culture:

    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 

    Film 
  • Played by Matthew Broderick in the 1996 film Infinity, about Feynman's marriage to first wife Arline.

    Literature 

    Live Action TV 
  • Played by William Hurt in The Challenger Disaster, a Made-for-TV movie about the investigation into the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

    Theatre 
  • Feynman fanboy Alan Alda produced and starred in QED, a play about Feynman set in his later years.

    Webcomics 
  • Zombie Feynman made an appearance in xkcd as a zombie.
Richard DawkinsUseful NotesRupert Murdoch
Marquis De La FayetteHistorical-Domain CharacterBenjamin Franklin

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