Al Seckel on Feynman

Feynman on Hawking

Several conversations that Feynman and I had involved the remarkable abilities of other physicists. In one of these conversations, I remarked to Feynman that I was impressed by Steven Hawking’s ability to do path integration in his head. Ahh, that’s not so great, Feynman replied. It’s much more interesting to come up with the technique like I did, rather than to be able to do the mechanics in your head. Feynman wasn’t being immodest, he was quite right. The true secret to genius is in creativity, not in technical mechanics.

Murray and Richard

Once I made the mistake of inviting both Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann over for dinner with a couple of other guests. Almost the entire evening was spent with the two of them sparing back and forth, You don’t have to say that, I already know that. Then the other one would say something, and again, You don’t have to say that, I already know that. Back and forth it went. My wife Laura turned to Gweneth Feynman, and said, Why do they even bother? Gweneth responded, We try to keep them apart as much as possible. Later that evening, we were all sitting around the table talking when someone said something and Murray Gell-Mann remarked, Oh, that’s a pleonasm. Everyone went, What? It’s a sentence with a triple redundancy, Gell-Mann stated. Gell-Mann is well known among his associates for his pedantic knowledge of language and facts. Feynman and I sneaked into my library where we looked it up in the dictionary.  Gell-Mann was right. Feynman hit his fist on the table, and exclaimed, DAMN IT! He’s always GODDAMNED right, always! Let’s see if we can catch him tonight, I replied. Later in the evening, the subject of antiquarian books on witchcraft came up and Gell-Mann said, Do you know the Malleus Maleficarum written by James I in 1623? No, Murray, the Malleus Maleficarum was written by Sprenger and Kramer in 1486, James I wrote the Demonology in 1597, I said authoritatively. Gell-Mann, looking very astonished, turned and said, WHAT? At that moment there was the great beginnings of a smile on Dick’s face, but it hadn’t been proved yet.  Gell-Mann again said, WHAT? I pulled out my Encyclopedia on Witchcraft and verified the titles, authors, and dates. Feynman slid under the table laughing, and roaring, Let the trumpets roar and the angles sing! I’ll never let you forget this, Murray! I knew it was an act all along!

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Gell-Mann!

This took place just after the publication of Surely You’re Joking, Mr.  Feynman. We were all sitting together at lunch talking about the success of the book, when one of the other graduate students remarked that they had not seen Murray Gell-Mann lately. I thought he had gone and started writing his own book of anecdotes. The other student remarked, Yeah, and I know what he is going to call it too, ‘Damn it Murray, You’re right again!’ At this remark, Feynman lost it, and slid under the table laughing. There was another lunch conversation that involved Gell-Mann that took place right after the publication of Surely You’re Joking.  Gell-Mann, who I was quite friendly with too, confided to me that he was very upset with Feynman’s written account of their joint discovery of the theory of beta decay. He felt that Feynman had not reported the account accurately and was giving himself undue credit. At lunch the mood was jovial, and I took the occasion to pass along Gell-Mann’s feelings about the controversial passage. Feynman’s smile immediately disappeared. He looked rather sad and hurt. This was the first time he had heard Gell-Mann’s reaction to the book. You know, I tried extra hard, very hard in fact, in the passages I wrote about Murray. I was especially careful.  Apparently, Gell-Mann was indeed upset, and there are published accounts of various explosions on the fourth floor of the physics building where they had offices close together. Feynman did indeed change the passage to suit Gell-Mann’s wishes.

The Amazing Randi Meets The Chief

Back in 1984 Feynman attended a lecture at Caltech given by James Amazing Randi, a well known magician and debunker of psychics. At this lecture, Randi performed a very good mental trick involving a newspaper and a prediction contained in an envelope pasted to the blackboard. The next evening, Randi and Feynman were at my house for dinner. It was a delightful and fun evening with lots of jokes and laughter all around. At about 1:30 a.m., Feynman and Randi still going strong, Feynman decided to figure out how Randi did his mental trick. Oh, no. You can’t solve that trick. You don’t have enough information! Randi exclaimed. What do you mean? Physicists never have enough information, Feynman responded.  Feynman began to stare off into space with Randi muttering on how he would not be able to solve it. Step by step, Feynman went through the process out loud and told Randi how the trick must have been done. Randi literally fell backwards over his chair and exclaimed, You didn’t fall off no apple cart! You didn’t get that Swedish Prize for nothing! Feynman roared with laughter. Later, on another visit to Caltech, Randi once again joined us for lunch. He did another trick for Feynman, this time a card trick. I DELIBERATELY misled you this time! Randi stated. Feynman paid him no attention. In less than three minutes, Feynman solved the trick. I’m never going to show you another trick again! declared a frustrated Randi.

The Supernatural Clock

Once we were talking about the supernatural and the following anecdote involving his first wife Arline came up. Arline had tuberculosis and was confined to a hospital while Feynman was at Los Alamos. Next to her bed was an old clock. Arline told Feynman that the clock was a symbol of the time that they had together and that he should always remember that.  Always look at the clock to remember the time we have together, she said.  The day that Arline died in the hospital, Feynman was given a note from the nurse that indicated the time of death. Feynman noted that the clock had stopped at exactly that time. It was as the clock, which had been a symbol of their time together, had stopped at the moment of her death.  Did you make a connection? I asked NO! NOT FOR A SECOND! I immediately began to think how this could have happened. And I realized that the clock was old and was always breaking. That the clock probably stopped some time before and the nurse coming in to the room to record the time of death would have looked at the clock and jotted down the time from that. I never made any supernatural connection, not even for a second. I just wanted to figure out how it happened.


One evening Feynman and I arrived early at a lecture at Caltech. We were sitting in the seats and gossiping about things of really no consequence whatever, when he heard these students come in and whisper, Hey, look it’s Feynman! I bet they are discussing something really important!

Because I Am Richard Feynman

Feynman and I would sometimes go camping together. On these occasions he would drive his van, which had Feynman diagrams painted all over it and a license plate that said Quantum. (Murray Gell-Mann had a license plate that said Quarks.) I asked Feynman if anyone ever recognized the diagrams. Yes. Once we were driving in the midwest and we pulled into a McDonald’s. Someone came up to me and asked me why I have Feynman diagrams all over my van. I replied, ‘Because I AM Feynman! The young man went “Ahhhhh…..”

A Visit to Penn and Teller

Penn and Teller are well known as The Bad Boys of Magic and are among today’s most popular magicians appearing on many light night TV shows, acts in Las Vegas, and so forth. There was a time, however, when they were still unknown and they had a little known stage show in Los Angeles.  I thought they were really funny and clever. They had a hard time getting people to come to their show and, being friends with them, they would call me up and tell me to bring my friends. I convinced Feynman, Al Hibbs, and Tom Van Sant (Feynman’s artist friend) to accompany me to the show. The show was excellent and we all had a good time. I tried to get Penn to understand who Feynman was and that he should pay him some attention, but Penn didn’t realize who I had brought at that time, so there was not much interaction. This was too bad, as Feynman really enjoyed the show. After the show, we went out to a nearby cafe and all of us tried to figure out the tricks. There was one that involved a cutting of a rose’s shadow that had everyone going for some time, but this time, the solution was not arrived at.

A Kooky Phone Call

On another occasion I was with both Gell-Mann and Feynman and the subject of kooky letters and phone calls came up. Feynman started relating the story of how one crazy woman called the office about some ridiculous theory of magnetic fields. He just could not get her off the phone.  Gell-Mann responded, Oh, I remember that woman. I got her off the phone in less than a minute. How’d you do that? Feynman asked. I told her to call you. That you were the resident expert in the topic!

A Bump on the Head

In the beginning part of 1984, Feynman was teaching a course on computing at Caltech. The course was also co-jointly taught by Gerald Sussman from MIT. On one occasion Feynman was lecturing at the blackboard, but this time Sussman kept coming up and correcting him. Later that week Feynman was supposed to come over for dinner. On the night in question, Feynman’s wife Gweneth called to say that Feynman was in the hospital and that they would not be able to come over. She told me not to tell anyone, as she didn’t want the word to get around. Apparently Feynman in his excitement to purchase a new computer tripped on the sidewalk curb and hit his head.  This caused some internal complications and bleeding. In a week or so, Feynman was back on his feet and returned to class. At lunch Feynman related what had happened. After bumping his head, he paid little or no attention to it. He was bleeding when he entered the computer store. What was interesting is that he gradually began to loose his sense of what was happening around him without internally realizing it. First, he couldn’t locate his car. Then he had a very strange session with one of his artistic models. And on another day, he told his secretary Helen Tuck that he was going home, and proceeded to undress and lie down in his office. He forgot that he was to give a lecture at Hughs aircraft, and so on… Everything was just rationalized away. But you know, he said, NO ONE told me I was going crazy. Now why not? I said, Come on. You are always doing weird stuff. Besides there such a fine line between genius and madness that it sometimes difficult to tell! Listen, ape, the next time I go crazy around here, you be sure to tell me!

The Johnny Carson Show

After Surely You’re Joking became a best-seller, Feynman was invited to do an appearance on the well-known Johnny Carson show. A number of us were sitting around at dinner when the topic of the invitation came up.  Feynman stated that was unfamiliar with the show and was debating whether or not he should go on. Everyone there started putting on the hard sell.  Al Hibbs discussed the excellence of the show and that he had appeared on it several times discussing various space exploration missions by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Carson is a science buff, he exclaimed. Others joined in the choir of approval. I turned to Feynman and said, Watch it first. Watch it before you make any sort of commitment. He turned to me and said, That’s the first wise thing I have heard on this topic. A few days later Feynman spotted me walking across the campus and demanded I come over. What? YOU WERE RIGHT! I watched that show and it was the most idiotic program I have ever seen. I would have walked off it in the middle.

Penrose and Feynman

Not long ago I gave a lecture at Oxford University. While I was there I had the good fortune to have a long lunch with physicist/mathematician Roger Penrose, who is responsible for much of our understanding of black holes. The topic of Feynman came up and Penrose related the following story: A while back he was visiting Caltech with Steven Hawking. Hawking asked Penrose if there was anyone at Caltech that he wanted to meet. The choice obviously came down to either Feynman or Gell-Mann. Penrose decided they should try to get a hold of Feynman. Hawking called up the office, but Feynman wasn’t in. He was on vacation. It turns out, however, he was vacationing at his home. Hawking called Feynman at home and Feynman reluctantly agreed to come over the next day. The subject of quantum gravity came up and Penrose and Feynman got into a heated argument. Penrose said, Feynman was so quick, he was usually about five steps ahead of me at any given point. Sometimes he didn’t listen to what I was saying. The whole thing was mentally exhausting. I was completely drained at the end of the session. I have never encountered anyone so quick before. What Penrose and many other physicists didn’t realize was the reason that accounted for Feynman’s quickness on many matters in physics. Feynman thought about some of these areas in great depth and for long periods of time. A topic like quantum gravity would be one that Feynman had spent countless hours thinking about. It wasn’t all off the cuff.