Popularity of late physicist revived on Internet
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
"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)
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
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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