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Popularity of late physicist revived on Internet

feynman October 10, 1996
Web posted at: 11:55 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Miles O'Brien

PASADENA, California (CNN) -- Eight years after his death, quirky Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is making something of a comeback, and Ralph Leighton is leading the way.

leighton "His name is popping up in more and more places," said Leighton, who played bongo drums with Feynman as a teen-ager and wrote a best-selling book entitled, "Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman."

But Leighton's work is just a fraction of what has been written by or about Richard Feynman. You can buy recordings of his jam sessions, and you can find him in bookstores. He is on the Internet, the focus of many Web sites, and is even the hero in a comic strip. Recently, he was portrayed by Matthew Broderick in the movie "Infinity." (30 sec./1.3M QuickTime movie)

Infinity The movie shows Feynman at the outset of his brilliant career -- at Los Alamos helping build the first atomic bomb while coping with his first wife's battle with tuberculosis.

Feynman made his scientific mark later in life, earning his Nobel Prize in physics for creating diagrams that predict the way sub-atomic particles interact.

He earned the admiration of a much wider audience for his key role in finding the cause of the fatal Challenger explosion 10 years ago.

But for students of physics, Feynman is remembered most for his amazing lectures. Part actor, part storyteller, part physicist, Richard Feynman the lecturer first stood at a podium at Cal Tech in 1950. Until his death from cancer in 1988, he inspired legions of students. (25 sec./1.1M QuickTime movie)


Mention his name to physics students at Cal Tech today and watch their eyes light up: "One of the reasons it was easier to become a physicist was because he was so exciting and he wasn't the typical, you know, nerd who doesn't say anything," said Cal Tech senior Dave Bacon.

Why such enduring hero worship? Feynman's Cal Tech colleague and friend David Goodstein offers one explanation: "He was an impossible combination of a truly great theoretical physicist and a person who you might meet in a bar somewhere and get to be friends with without ever knowing he was both."

Added his sister Joan Feynman: "He has become a fable -- and a fable for good, I think."

There is even a campaign to convince the postal service to issue a Richard Feynman stamp, an effort that Leighton is leading. He's received thousands of letters in support of the effort.

For Leighton, the essence of Feynman is summed up in the words Tannu Tuva. As a child, Feynman collected colorful stamps from the tiny Asian country. In the early 80s, he and Leighton made it their goal to visit Tuva -- a real challenge because it was then part of the Soviet Union.

"I thought when we adopted this rallying cry, Tuva or bust, it was this serious thing. We have got to make it to Tuva no matter what, and I also thought the way you measured success was whether you made it to your goal or not. Now I realize after he died that he didn't really care much if he got there. He enjoyed the journey along the way."


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