Useful Notes: 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 (May 11, 1918 February 15, 1988) 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 (he would note that some of them were frighteningly easy to figure out considering what they were supposed to protect) 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.


Richard Feynman in fiction and pop culture:

    open/close all folders 

    Comic Books 

    Fan Fiction 

    Film 
  • Played by Matthew Broderick in the 1996 film Infinity, about Feynman's marriage to first wife Arline. It is based mostly on the first half of Feynman's second memoir What Do You Care What Other People Think?

    Literature 
  • An Artificial Intelligence based on Feynman serves as a Trickster Mentor to one of the characters in Elizabeth Bear's Jenny Casey trilogy.
  • In the non-fiction book Enola Gay by Gordon Thomas about the development of the atomic bomb and it's eventual use at Hiroshima, an unidentified (at the time) Trickster was noted to have cracked open a safe at Los Alamos National Laboratory containing atomic secrets and only left a piece of paper inside with two words written on it - "Guess Who?"

    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. It is based largely on the second half of his second memoir What Do You Care What Other People Think?

    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.

Tropes relating to Feynman himself:

  • Brilliant but Lazy: Mildly, He always enjoyed teaching and talking about physics, even with laypeople without much scientific or technical knowledge, but hated writing up his findings for publishing and one time even had to be locked in a room with food slid under the door to force him to finish a paper
  • Cassandra Truth: "People often think I'm a faker, bur I'm usually honest, in a certain way—in such a way that often nobody believes me!"
    • This is how he got out of the army, by telling the psych analyst the complete, honest truth. They thought he was nuts.
  • The Casanova: Romanced his fair share of the ladies.
  • Cool Old Guy: In his later years
  • Deadpan Snarker
  • Fun Personified
  • Humble Hero: Despite his fame he never thought he was much of a big deal.
  • Second Love: His (technically, third) wife Gweneth.
  • Trickster Archetype