When I was very young, I thought my father knew everything. Indeed, a prominent magazine once declared him “The Smartest Man in the World.” Upon hearing this, his mother threw up her hands and exclaimed, “If Richard is the smartest man in the world, God help the world!” My father was the first one to laugh.
As I grew older, I began to see only what my father didn’t know, and came to think I was the one with all the answers. He would ask me questions whose answers I found to be painfully obvious, such as, “Hey, Michelle, where do we keep the spoons around here?” I discovered the real truth in my late teens. My father was a wise man with a tremendous appetite for life, an insatiable curiosity about how the world works, and a great aptitude for teaching.
Here are the basic facts of his life: Richard Phillips Feynman was born in New York City in 1918 and grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens. He attended MIT and Princeton University. In 1942 he married his high-school sweetheart, Arline Greenbaum, even though she was ill with tuberculosis, and joined the Manhattan Project, where he became a group leader. Arline died in 1945. In 1950 he joined the faculty of Caltech and spent the remainder of his career there. He was an adventurer who made a hobby of cracking safes, who played bongo drums for a San Francisco ballet, and who decided to learn to draw in his forties—and became remarkably good at it. He married my mother, Gweneth Howarth, in 1960. My brother, Carl, was born in 1962, and I was adopted in 1968.
Though he remained forever ambivalent about it, his most public achievement came in 1965, when he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, sharing it with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga for their work in quantum electrodynamics, a description of how subatomic particles interact. In 1986, he was again in the public eye, this time working on the commission investigating the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. He died in 1988 after a long battle with abdominal cancer. Caltech held two memorial services, and the auditorium quickly reached capacity both times.
Despite his success, my father encouraged an irreverent attitude toward himself. Our dinner conversations were full of tales about mistakes he made during the day: losing his sweater, having conversations with people and not remembering their names. On Sunday mornings, he would often forgo reading the newspaper in favor of a wild hour of loud, often discordant music, drumming, and storytelling with my brother and me. When it was his turn to drive the car pool to elementary school, he would pretend to get lost. “No, not that way!” all the kids would scream. “Oh, all right. Is it this way?” and he would turn the wrong way again. “Nooooooo!” we would yell in utter panic.
Of my father’s many skills, this willingness to play the fool—and to let me think he could be outfoxed by my clever thinking—was the one that shaped my childhood more than any other. This is also the key, in my mind, to his success as a teacher. Never condescending, he had a knack for breaking problems down to a seemingly simplistic level and then allowing his students to be the geniuses who figured out the solutions.
These memories and more came flooding back to me when I began sorting through twelve filing-cabinet drawers of papers from the Caltech Archives. As I delved into his correspondence, I was completely captivated. In his written work my father is articulate, insightful, considerate, humble, funny, and charming. These letters are testimony to his skill and desire to be plainly understood—and, of course, to his passion and curiosity about the world. Again, his own words, written to a young student seeking advice, explain it best: “You cannot develop a personality with physics alone, the rest of life must be worked in.”