RICHARD Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Shinichiro Tomonaga jointly won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics. Of the three, Feynman was the most famous.
Physics professors and students liked to listen to his lectures. They knew they could learn a lot from him.
In his twilight years as a physicist, he was suffering from cancer and was not so active in community engagements. He turned down speaking engagements at home and abroad. It was difficult to get him as a speaker.
When the physicists from University of British Columbia (UBC) wanted to invite Feynman to their Canadian Undergraduate Physics Conference, they had to think of the best way to get him to attend.
They decided to send a pretty and intelligent girl as a representative instead of the usual polite invitation.
Richard Feynman succumbed to the feminine charm. He accepted the invitation and returned to UBC more than once according to Anton Z. Capri in his book From Quanta to Quarks.
His fellow co-winner, Julian Schwinger, was also a much sought after speaker but not in the league of Feynman. His fans were fellow physicists who were active in their research.
One of them was Abdus Salam (1979 Nobel co-laureate in Physics). He did not use the same method as the physicists from UBC. However, his was also a subtle seduction.
When Salam knew that Schwinger was in London, he wanted him to give a talk, but knew it had to be on the latter’s terms.
Salam agreed that Schwinger should take a rest first.
Anton Z. Capri, in his book, vividly described the whole event:
“Salam agreed to handle the costs of Schwinger in London. Accordingly, Schwinger was met at the airport with a fancy limo and taken to a fancy hotel where he was left alone for three days. After that time, Salam phoned to ask how everything was and how Schwinger was enjoying the London shows.
“Schwinger affirmed that the hotel was fine, but that he had not left the hotel. Salam then informed Schwinger that once in London, you had to take in some of the sights. Schwinger agreed to go to dinner with Salam and P.T. Mathews the following evening.
“To show Schwinger the sights, they took him to a private dining club in Soho using the unexpired membership card of a previous visitor. The doorman asked Schwinger and Salam to sign in; Mathews had assumed the name on the card and did not have to sign in.
“At the time, the law required that one had to sign in if the club had topless waitresses. Schwinger hesitated since he did not relish the idea that it might become known that he had attended such an establishment.
“Salam laughed and said ‘You don’t need to use your own name. Watch.’ And he signed ‘Abdullah’. Finally Schwinger also signed.
“The next day Schwinger agreed to give a seminar. When Salam asked him what name he had signed, Schwinger answered ‘P.T. Mathews’”.
Professor P.T. Mathews later became the vice-chancellor of a premier university in England. I was privileged to attend his interesting quantum mechanics lectures in 1977. He was well-liked by students.
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 Albert 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’.