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Four fun anecdotes from the Feynman Oral Histories
And how they are very relevant to progress studies
This Substack was largely born out of me sitting on a mountain of fun facts about early 1900s science and the economics of innovation. Some of that, less than 10%, makes it into the longer pieces which make quite coherent, fleshed-out points. But, sometimes, there’s just a fun quote or graph that can stand alone that I think you all would get a kick out of. To this point, sadly, I’ve been leaving these fun tidbits out of the Substack altogether.
This post is an experiment. It is a ‘Short’ and is made up of four stand alone tidbits that I think you’ll enjoy from Feynman’s oral history. The quotes detail:
Feynman’s first reaction to Princeton as a graduate student
A bit of what drove his work at the Manhattan project (and how it relates to the Langmuir post)
An anecdote on just how hands-on the experimental physicists at Los Alamos were
And the backstory behind Feynman’s proof related to Dirac’s work that led him to approach Dirac for the first time (which is a now famously awkward first meeting that you can read more about in this Privatdozent post)
When Feynman first saw Princeton
Feynman was a bit trepidatious about what life would be like at Princeton before he first arrived. He had never seen the place and, really, had wanted to go to graduate school at MIT. However, MIT would not have him because, even though he was known as one of the Institute’s brightest students, his mentor, MIT Professor John Slater, felt that he should get his Ph.D. at a different university to experience how science was done elsewhere.
So, Feynman chose Princeton because he would have the opportunity to work for Wigner there as a research assistant — an opportunity that fell through due to some administrative mix-up.
Anyway, he was nervous about the social life at Princeton because he knew he was not a good interpersonal fit for stilted formalities — the University seemed to have a strong desire to maintain certain Oxford-like traditions — like afternoon tea and dinner gowns. This was very much the opposite of what MIT was like at the time as exemplified in Part I of my early MIT series.
Feynman remarked on what happened when he and his roommate were told to come to tea on their first day:
I was scared because of this same thing I was talking about — I’m not so good at this. “The Dean’s tea” — it sounded so silly, you know, and high class. He [the roommate whose father was a renowned chemist] took it in stride, because he was that kind of guy. And we went to the Dean’s tea the first day I was there — it was a Sunday, I guess — and the Dean, Dean Eisenhart, was in the line going in. I told him my name, and he said, “Oh yes, I know, you’re from MIT,” and so on. I was kind of pleased by that. Then, when I went in, I was looking around, where to sit and everything, I was concerned with all these matters, and there were some girls around. I felt rather stiff. Then I heard a voice behind me say, “Would you like cream or lemon in your tea, Sir?” It was Mrs. E., and I said, “Both, please, “-– absentmindedly — and then there was a nervous laugh that I could hear and she said, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” Then I had to turn around and figure, what was I joking? What was the question? It was really quite — so I started out on the wrong foot with the social things.
That could’ve gone better, but he knew that some of these more formal bits of Princeton life wouldn’t be a good fit for him. But that was to be expected. A big reason that he picked Princeton, on top of the opportunity to work with Wigner, was that, in reading the Physical Review, he had noted that there was a lot of very very good work coming out of Princeton. He had particularly noticed that great work that interested him was coming out of the University’s cyclotron.
Having seen MIT’s extremely high-tech, pretty cyclotron, he could only imagine what this beautiful piece of equipment would look like at this cyclotron research powerhouse. Feynman remembers:
I had read the journals, yes, and I knew things that were going on because I’d seen the articles, and I knew that from the Princeton cyclotron research lots of work came, good work. I also knew that at MIT they had a marvelous cyclotron. They were very proud of it. MIT was self-confident and proud, and everybody at MIT thinks it’s great, and I thought that it was great. It was essentially gold-plated, if you know what I mean — I don’t mean literally — and the control board was in another room, with special glass panels and knobs and everything. It was very nice. I’d seen the cyclotron. But I knew from the journals that not much was coming from the MIT cyclotron, relatively, and therefore the Princeton cyclotron must really be something — you know? Of course, the MIT one was big, in two rooms, and so on. So I got to Princeton, and the first thing, when I was there and I went to the physics building, I asked immediately, “I want to see the cyclotron” — because I was very excited. And they said to go down in the basement and the room down at the end of the basement — which seemed to me incredible, stuffed away…Anyway, I went down in the basement, and I walked into the room where the cyclotron was, at the end of the basement. And it wasn’t 15 seconds before I understood why the Princeton cyclotron had lots of results, why Slater had told me to go to another school — I understood the whole thing. The whole mirage, the whole idealism of MIT collapsed. Because I recognized something in that room, which was the same as in my laboratory at home. The cyclotron was in the middle of the room. There were wires all over the place, hanging in the air, just strung up by somebody. There were water things — there had to be automatic water coolers, and little switches, so if the water stopped it would automatically go on, and there were some kind of pipes and you could see, you know, water dripping. There was wax all over the place, hanging, where they were fixing leaks. The room was full of cans of film at crazy angles on tables. You see, completely different than at MIT. A place where somebody was working! Where the guy who was working was close to the machine, could fix it with his own hands. It was not in an insulated box with knobs. I understood it immediately, because I’d had this experience in laboratory. It looked like my kid laboratory, where I had everything all over the place and the tools were put down where I last had ‘em. And I realized that this was really research, and that I had been fooled — that good engineering design is what they had at MIT, in a kind of abstract way, but not the real work with the machine, that they were separated from it. I understood it very quickly, as soon as I saw the machine. I loved it. I knew I was in the right place. They were guys of the old — the way I had felt when I was a kid. Fiddling is the answer. Experimenting is fiddling around. It’s not an organized program, elegance — it’s impossible. I noticed it. I mean, I realized right away that Slater was right. I had thought that was the best school in the world, and here was a thing I’d imagined must be three times as great, ten times as large, and four times as elegant, in order to get that much more research. But as a matter of fact, it was smaller and completely inelegant, and that was the secret. So I loved Princeton right away.
Accounts like this, in an age of bigger science and fancier machines being the name of the game in so many research areas, should stick with us.
A Feynman quote that relates to the recent Irving Langmuir piece
Feynman spent hours accounting to Weiner, the historian conducting the interviews, what his daily life looked like at the Manhattan Project. To many, including Weiner, these stories paint the picture of an overly energetic theorist, with innovative problem-solving skills and an eye for good experiments, darting around Los Alamos and working on whatever exciting thing caught his eye. He has, in fact, become known for this type of energy. And it’s true, in part. But, when Weiner asks about this, Feynman makes a clarification that echoes the themes of the Irving Langmuir piece.
A great deal of it is play, you see. I mean, I look for problems and I do things. I know, but play that was contributing, you see, and not fiddling around. I never fiddled around there. I played a lot, but I always played in a way that was directed. I could always explain the play as not useless, you see. There was a tremendous amount of play. That’s really what it was — so many problems — I’d look for them, because I liked all these crazy things. Yes, very much like play. But always with a purpose in the end.
He was playing, but with the constraint of only working on problems related to work streams already underway at Los Alamos. Just like Langmuir, this model brought a lot of interesting and productive fundamental research questions directly to Feynman, whether it be thinking through how to construct a more useful fission counter or novel work on the compressibility of substances under extreme pressures.
Now, I do not believe that Feynman — in any way — required being bombarded with these problems to come up with great research questions because he seems to have had a freakish production function that worked well independent of this. But much of the work and ideas that came his way from this applied work, a lesser mind could have also made a dent in.
And that, after all, was the point of the Langmuir piece. Feynman, for a variety of reasons, could just play ball. You just needed to stay out of his way. But most people need a little more help for their inspiration. And the well-balanced, constrained freedom of a place like Los Alamos is yet another example of an incentive structure similar to the early GE lab — probably a little more constrained in this case given that they were on a time crunch.
A reminder of how hands-on many researchers were in Feynman’s era
The following is a famous excerpt that I always think back on when I try to conceptualize just how applied and hands-on the skillsets of so many of the experimentalists of early and mid 1900s were:
When I got there [to Los Alamos]…there was Paul Olum, my assistant, with a clipboard and paper, checking the trucks of dirt and boards that were coming in the gate, you know, checking them off — how many loads of lumber. Then I went into the building just finished, one of the few buildings that was finished, and somebody said, “This is John Williams — Dick Feynman” — you know. And I had heard of John Williams. He had his name on papers in nuclear physics. I’d heard of many people but this was when I first met them. He was somebody I respected a great deal, big scientist, you know. His job — he was in his shirt sleeves, sitting there with big blueprints all over the place in front of him, like he was a building inspector or contractor. He gets up, “Hi, glad to meet you,” and sits down — some workman comes over and he says, “Now, you put a line in here, you put this in there.” In other words, we went up there, and the experimenters who had nothing to do because there was no laboratory, finished the building. They helped the contractor. They just went in there and they checked the trucks, they carried the blueprint information over, you know, they did everything that the contractors would do, to make it faster, to help them. So it was a very exciting interesting thing. Dust from the trucks, half-finished buildings — you have to get a picture of it. We were there ahead of time. And we helped to make it, you see. I don’t know if this appears anywhere, but it was an exciting business.
If you’re looking to repair, fiddle with, and improve upon lab instruments, in an effort to constantly expand what can be measured and known, the researchers who could complete Physics Ph.D.s AND build the laboratory buildings from scratch are probably the ones you want on your team.
I can’t say for sure that our current experimentalists have lost their edge in this area, but I’d probably take 10:1 odds that the answer is “yes.”
Feynman’s quest for usefulness and why he approached Dirac for the first time
Dirac and Feynman first met in person at the Princeton Bicentennial Conference. Dirac was giving a paper and Feynman was to introduce him and the paper.
At one point in the conference, Feynman remembers noticing something strange as he glanced away from some of the great scientists of the day like Bohr and others arguing about something:
And they’re all sitting around worrying, and they’re talking, and I look out the window, and through all this Mr. Dirac, paying no attention to anybody, had walked out and was sitting on the grass, lying on the grass with his elbow against his head looking up at the sky. I thought, that’s interesting, and I went out too. I went out to him and I said, “I guess you don’t care what they’re saying — I don’t remember, something like that, because I didn’t believe what they were saying either. I felt a kindred spirit. I talked to him a minute. But the main thing I remember was, I’d wanted always to ask him a question, and I asked it.
He was lying on the grass, and I said to him, “By the way, Professor, you know that paper in which you say those quantities are analogous,” and so on. He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Did you know they’re proportional?” He said, “Are they?” I said, “Yes.” “Oh. That’s interesting.” That’s all.
This entire scene is very typical of Dirac. In fact, that is comparatively a lot of words for him to have said to a stranger. Also, it is interesting that Feynman would see in Dirac, his interpersonal opposite, a fellow kindred spirit. Feynman is not the only person to notice this odd similarity between him and the near-silent Dirac — who was an idol of his. Wigner once noted on young Feynman, “‘He is a second Dirac, only this time human.”
Getting back to the more useful point, how exactly young, grad student Richard Feynman had proved this equivalence in Dirac’s work was very typical of Feynman and very relevant to this Substack’s recent coverage of usefulness and its importance in American basic research.
There was a quality in quantum mechanics, defined by Dirac, which was an integral kernel to carry the wave function from one time to the next instant of time. It’s defined in the equation just after equation 33, the function of 𝜲′. And Dirac pointed out that this function in quantum mechanics was analogous to the exponential of 𝜾 times 𝜺 times the Lagrangian, where the velocity for the Lagrangian you put 𝜲 minus 𝜲′ over 𝜺, and for the position just 𝜲. It said in the paper that the two things were analogous. Jehle [a German physicist] showed me this and I read it and I said, “What does it mean that it’s analogous? What is the significance of saying that something is analogous to something else? “It just means that it’s similar, it’s analogous in some way.” I said, “I don’t know. What’s the use of that? It can’t mean anything, it has no use.” Jehle said, “You Americans, always looking for a use for a thing!” So I said, “Well, Dirac must mean that they’re equal. It doesn’t mean anything otherwise.” He said, “No, Dirac doesn’t mean they’re equal.” I said, “Well, let’s try and see if they could be equal,” so I substituted one expression for the other, and calculated what the wave function would be at the next instant, and found that if I didn’t make them equal but rather proportional, by multiplying by a constant, that as a matter of fact it was equivalent to a statement of the Schrodinger equations. So I worked out the Schrodinger equation from that right on the blackboard, and turned around to Jehle and said, “See, Dirac meant they were proportional.” But Professor Jehle said, “No, no, Dirac didn’t know that, you have just made an important discovery,” and he was very excited and copied everything into his notebook. I didn’t realize — I was only trying to interpret Dirac — but he realized that I had discovered something that wasn’t known. He said, “You Americans, always trying to find a use something! That is a way to discover new things.” He was quite convinced of it after that. I never was sure, really sure, that Dirac didn’t think they were proportional until way later, in 1947, when I saw Dirac at Princeton.
I can’t conclude any better than that.
I’ll release another short on the Feynman oral histories in the next few days. Please dm me on Twitter to let me know if you liked this experiment in changing up the content or feel free to drop a like on the post! It’ll help me decide what types of content to work on moving forward. Until next time:)