WITH strong support and recommendation from Professor John Slater, Richard Feynman finally arrived at Princeton University in the autumn of 1939.
He had to undergo some sort of orientation to acculturate himself with the middle-class community of Princeton.
His first duty was to attend a stuffy tea party hosted by the dean of the graduate school, as told by Piers Bizony in his book Atom.
The de facto host was the dean’s wife. She made sure everyone was comfortable and socially at ease.
According to Bizony, almost as soon as Feynman had walked into the room, she asked him: “Would you like cream or lemon in your tea, Mr Feynman?”
Not used to making such a choice before, because he was a coffee drinker, Feynman absent-mindedly replied: “I’ll have both, thank you.”
“Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman!” the dean’s wife teased, implying that he had committed a lower-class faux pas in the presence of her genteel and well-mannered Princeton colleagues.
Feynman, being Feynman didn’t give a damn.
According to Bizony: “He flaunted his blue-collar, small-town mannerisms as a badge of disdain for pomp, hypocrisy, class and racial prejudices and other such ‘hocus pocus’ that has no place in a clear thinking mind.
“He sneered at the airy pretensions of middle-class art, literature, poetry and music, not to mention the world’s great canon of ‘philawzaphers’.”
He, however, could still thrive under such socially alien environments because his passion for physics was intense.
He did not have to pretend to be friendly and sociable in order to get peer approbation and approval.
He did not think much about the much-touted philosophy espoused by Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.”
He was more into: “I am, and I also think.”
He was definitely one of a kind — playful, bordering on clownishness.
He was one of the top physicists that America has produced.
Another socially inept famous physicist was Paul Dirac.
His taciturn image and character was already well-entrenched in the mind of fellow physicists.
He was described as painfully shy, a man of few words and socially gauche.
He and Feynman got along pretty well. They respected each other.
His Cambridge colleague, Neville Mott (co-winner of the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physics), had observed Dirac at close-range and to him the latter was quite indifferent to cold, discomfort, food, etc. He was like one’s idea of Gandhi.
Notice how world-class physicists such as Paul Dirac, Richard Feynman and Albert Einstein, although they appeared odd, their lives had somehow been legendary and seemed larger than life.
When alive, their presence was noticed and after they had gone, their absence was sorely missed and felt.
In their individual way, they are physics’ icons.
We regale in telling their stories.
Dr Koh Aik Khoon is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics Malaysia. After he began writing for a local daily since 1988, he never looked back. His topics are mainly on Science and Higher Education. He has humanised top scientists like Einstein, Richard Feynman, Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking, among others, in his pieces. Some of his articles have been compiled into a book entitled ‘Musing from the Ivory Tower’.