Here at Open Culture, Richard Feynman is never far from our minds. Though he distinguished himself with his work on the development of the atomic bomb and his Nobel Prize-winning research on quantum electrodynamics, you need no special interest in either World War II or theoretical physics to look to him as an intellectual model. In the years after his death in 1988, his legend grew as not just a scientific mind but even more so as a veritable personification of curiosity, surrounded by stories (deliberately cultivated by him in his lifetime) of safe-cracking, bongo-playing, and nude model-drawing, to the point that Feynman the man became somewhat hard to discern.
In the view of Freakonomics Radio host Stephen Dubner, Feynman’s public profile has lately fallen into an unfortunate desuetude. It seems that people just don’t talk about him the way they used to, hard though that is to imagine for any of us who grew up reading collections of anecdotes like Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!.
Operating on the supposition that we could all use more Feynman in our lives, Freakonomics Radio has, over the past month, put out a three-part series covering his life and work, from his recruitment to the Manhattan Project and later public analysis of the Challenger disaster to his years teaching at Caltech to his late-in-life experimentation with psychedelic substances (further explored in a fourth, bonus episode).
“The Curious, Brilliant, Vanishing Mr. Feynman” (also available on Apple and Spotify) includes a variety of interviews with its subject’s friends, relatives, collaborators, and successors. All speak highly of him, though some complicate the legend by looking at the downsides of his idiosyncratic attitudes toward both science and the social world: his insistence on understanding everything by figuring it out himself from scratch may have led to him making fewer discoveries than he would have, had he made more use of the research of others, and his enthusiasm for womankind, shall we say, manifested in ways that would probably generate calls for “cancellation” today. But just as Feynman eschewed the label of “genius,” he never claimed to be a perfect human being. And besides, it isn’t his social inclinations or even his bongo skills we should admire, but his dedication to defeating “lousy ideas” — which, as he no doubt expected, have only proliferated since he left us.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.