The Life & Work of Richard Feynman Explored in a Three-Part Freakonomics Radio Miniseries

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

What Made Richard Feyn­man One of the Most Admired Edu­ca­tors in the World

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Is Now Com­plete­ly Online

How Richard Feynman’s Dia­grams Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Physics

Watch a New Ani­ma­tion of Richard Feynman’s Ode to the Won­der of Life, with Music by Yo-Yo Ma

The “Feyn­man Tech­nique” for Study­ing Effec­tive­ly: An Ani­mat­ed Primer

“The Char­ac­ter of Phys­i­cal Law”: Richard Feynman’s Leg­endary Course Pre­sent­ed at Cor­nell, 1964

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.

Why Perpetual Motion Machines Never Work, Despite Centuries of Experiments

Accord­ing to the laws of physics — at least in sim­pli­fied form — an object in motion will stay in motion, at least if no oth­er forces act on it. That’s all well and good in the realm of the­o­ry, but here in the com­plex real­i­ty of Earth, there always seems to be one force or anoth­er get­ting in the way. Not that this has ever com­plete­ly shut down mankind’s desire to build a per­pet­u­al-motion machine. Accord­ing to Google Arts & Cul­ture, that quest dates at least as far back as sev­enth-cen­tu­ry India, where “the math­e­mati­cian Brah­magup­ta, who want­ed to rep­re­sent the cycli­cal and eter­nal motion of the heav­ens, designed an over­bal­anced wheel whose rota­tion was pow­ered by the flow of mer­cury inside its hol­low spokes.”

More wide­ly known is the suc­ces­sor design by Brah­magup­ta’s twelfth-cen­tu­ry coun­try­man and col­league Bhāskara, who “altered the wheel design by giv­ing the hol­low spokes a curved shape, pro­duc­ing an asym­met­ri­cal course in con­stant imbal­ance.” Despite this ren­di­tion’s mem­o­rable ele­gance, it does not, like the ear­li­er over­bal­anced wheel, actu­al­ly keep on turn­ing for­ev­er. To blame are the very same laws of physics that have dogged the sub­se­quent 900 or so years of attempts to build per­pet­u­al-motion machines, which you can see briefly explained in the TED-Ed video above.

“Ideas for per­pet­u­al-motion machines all vio­late one or more fun­da­men­tal laws of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics, the branch of physics that describes the rela­tion­ship between dif­fer­ent forms of ener­gy,” says the nar­ra­tor. The first law holds that “ener­gy can’t be cre­at­ed or destroyed; you can’t get out more ener­gy than you put in.” That alone would put an end to hopes for a “free” ener­gy source of this kind. But even machines that just keep mov­ing by them­selves — much less use­ful, of course, but still sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly earth-shat­ter­ing — would even­tu­al­ly “have to cre­ate some extra ener­gy to nudge the sys­tem past its stop­ping point, break­ing the first law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics.”

When­ev­er machines seem to over­come this prob­lem, “in real­i­ty, they invari­ably turn out to be draw­ing ener­gy from some exter­nal source.” (Nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca seems to have offered end­less oppor­tu­ni­ties for engi­neer­ing char­la­tanism of this kind, whose per­pe­tra­tors made a habit of skip­ping town when­ev­er their trick­ery was revealed, some obtain­ing patents and prof­its all the while). But even if the first law of ther­mo­dy­nam­ics did­n’t apply, there would remain the mat­ter of the sec­ond, which dic­tates that “ener­gy tends to spread out through process­es like fric­tion,” thus “reduc­ing the ener­gy avail­able to move the sys­tem itself, until the machine inevitably stopped.” Hence the aban­don­ment of inter­est in per­pet­u­al motion by such sci­en­tif­ic minds as Galileo and Leonar­do — who must also have under­stood that mankind would nev­er ful­ly relin­quish the dream.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Ele­gant Design for a Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine

M. C. Escher’s Per­pet­u­al Motion Water­fall Brought to Life: Real or Sleight of Hand?

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inven­tions Come to Life as Muse­um-Qual­i­ty, Work­able Mod­els: A Swing Bridge, Scythed Char­i­ot, Per­pet­u­al Motion Machine & More

How the Bril­liant Col­ors of Medieval Illu­mi­nat­ed Man­u­scripts Were Made with Alche­my

A Com­plete Dig­i­ti­za­tion of Leonar­do Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanti­cus, the Largest Exist­ing Col­lec­tion of His Draw­ings & Writ­ings

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.

The Physics of Playing a Guitar Visualized: Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” Seen from the Inside of a Guitar

Give it a chance, you won’t be dis­ap­point­ed. While the first 30 sec­onds of the video above may resem­ble an ama­teur iPhone prank, it soon becomes some­thing unex­pect­ed­ly enchanting—a visu­al­iza­tion of the physics of music in real-time. The Youtu­ber places his phone inside an acoustic gui­tar, then plays Metallica’s “Noth­ing Else Mat­ters” against a back­drop of clouds and blue sky. Due to what Twist­ed Sifter iden­ti­fies as the phone camera’s rolling shut­ter effect, the actu­al waves of the vibrat­ing gui­tar strings are as clear­ly vis­i­ble as if they were on an oscil­lo­scope.

The com­par­i­son is an apt one, since we might use exact­ly such a device to mea­sure and visu­al­ize the acoustic prop­er­ties of stringed instru­ments. “A gui­tar string”—writes physi­cist and musi­cian Sam Hokin in his short explanation—is a com­mon exam­ple of a string fixed at both ends which is elas­tic and can vibrate.

The vibra­tions of such a string are called stand­ing waves, and they sat­is­fy the rela­tion­ship between wave­length and fre­quen­cy that comes from the def­i­n­i­tion of waves.”

Those with a physics back­ground might appre­ci­ate The Physics Class­room’s tech­ni­cal descrip­tion of gui­tar string vibra­tion, with sev­er­al tech­ni­cal dia­grams. For oth­ers, the video above by Youtube physics teacher Doc Shus­ter may be a bet­ter for­mat. Shus­ter explains such enti­ties as nodes and antin­odes (you’ll have to tell me if you get any of his jokes). And at about 2:25, he digress­es from his mus­ings on these phe­nom­e­na to talk about gui­tar strings specif­i­cal­ly, which “make one note for a giv­en tight­ness of the string, a giv­en weight of the string, and a giv­en length of the string.”

This is, of course, why chang­ing the length of the string by press­ing down on it changes the note the string pro­duces, and it applies to all stringed instru­ments and the piano. Oth­er fac­tors, says Shus­ter, like the body of the gui­tar, use of pick­ups, etc., have a much small­er effect on the fre­quen­cy of a gui­tar string than tight­ness, weight, and length. We see how the com­plex­i­ty of dif­fer­ent stand­ing wave forms relates to har­mon­ics (or over­tones). And when we return to the Metal­li­ca video at the top, we’ll have a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how the strings vibrate dif­fer­ent­ly as they pro­duce dif­fer­ent fre­quen­cies at dif­fer­ent har­mon­ics.

Shuster’s video quick­ly laps­es into cal­cu­lus, and you may or may not be lost by his expla­na­tions. The Physics Class­room has some excel­lent, free tuto­ri­als on var­i­ous types of waves, pitch fre­quen­cy, vibra­tion, and res­o­nance. Per­haps all we need to keep in mind to under­stand the very basics of the sci­ence is this, from their intro­duc­tion: “As a gui­tar string vibrates, it sets sur­round­ing air mol­e­cules into vibra­tional motion. The fre­quen­cy at which these air mol­e­cules vibrate is equal to the fre­quen­cy of vibra­tion of the gui­tar string.” The action of the string pro­duces an equal and oppo­site reac­tion in the air, which then cre­ates “a pres­sure wave which trav­els out­ward from its source.” The pres­sure waves strike our eardrums, our brains inter­pret sound, and there you have it.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Metal­li­ca Plays Antarc­ti­ca, Set­ting a World Record as the First Band to Play All 7 Con­ti­nents: Watch the Full Con­cert Online

Jazz Drum­mer Lar­nell Lewis Hears Metallica’s “Enter Sand­man” for the Very First Time, Then Plays It Near-Per­fect­ly

Watch Metal­li­ca Play “Enter Sand­man” Before a Crowd of 1.6 Mil­lion in Moscow, Dur­ing the Final Days of the Sovi­et Union (1991)

Free Online Physics Cours­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Oppenheimer’s Secret City: The Story Behind the Stealthy Creation of Los Alamos, New Mexico

We think of the atom­ic bomb as a destroy­er of cities, name­ly Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki. But its devel­op­ment also pro­duced a city: Los Alam­os, New Mex­i­co, an offi­cial­ly non-exis­tent com­mu­ni­ty in which the nec­es­sary research could be con­duct­ed in secret. More recent­ly, it became a major shoot­ing loca­tion for Oppen­heimer, Christo­pher Nolan’s new movie about the tit­u­lar the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist remem­bered as the father (or one of the fathers) of the atom­ic bomb based on his work as the direc­tor of the Los Alam­os Lab­o­ra­to­ry. You can learn more about that lab­o­ra­to­ry, and the town of 6,000 con­struct­ed to sup­port it, in the new Vox video above.

Los Alam­os was nec­es­sary to the Man­hat­tan Project, as the R&D of the world’s first nuclear weapon was code-named, but it was­n’t suf­fi­cient: oth­er secret sites involved includ­ed “a nuclear reac­tor under a Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go foot­ball field”; “the Alaba­ma Ordi­nance Works, for pro­duc­ing heavy water”; “a large plant for the enrich­ment of ura­ni­um and pro­duc­tion of some plu­to­ni­um” in Oak Ridge, Ten­nessee”; and the Han­ford Engi­neer Works in Wash­ing­ton State, which pro­duced even more plu­to­ni­um.

But the bomb itself was cre­at­ed in Los Alam­os, into whose iso­la­tion Oppen­heimer recruit­ed the likes of Enri­co Fer­mi, Edward Teller, Richard Feyn­man, and oth­er pow­er­ful sci­en­tif­ic minds — who brought their wives and chil­dren along.

As a 1944 Med­ical Corp memo warned, the “intel­lec­tu­als” at Los Alam­os would “seek more med­ical care than the aver­age per­son”; at the same time, one-fifth of the mar­ried women there were preg­nant, so up went mater­ni­ty wards as well. The pop­u­la­tion of Los Alam­os grew so rapid­ly that “hut­ments were a com­mon form of accom­mo­da­tion,” though “apart­ment build­ings were also avail­able.” The hous­ing sat along­side “facil­i­ties for graphite fab­ri­ca­tion, and the cyclotron and Van de Graaff machines.” Less than 250 miles south lay what, in the sum­mer of 1945, would become the site of the Trin­i­ty test. It was there, gaz­ing upon the explo­sion of the unprece­dent­ed nuclear weapon whose devel­op­ment he’d over­seen, that Oppen­heimer saw not mere­ly a destroy­er of cities, but a destroy­er of worlds.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Oppen­heimer: The Man Behind the Bomb

Watch Chill­ing Footage of the Hiroshi­ma & Nagasa­ki Bomb­ings in Restored Col­or

J. Robert Oppen­heimer Explains How, Upon Wit­ness­ing the First Nuclear Explo­sion, He Recit­ed a Line from the Bha­gavad Gita: “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroy­er of Worlds”

See Every Nuclear Explo­sion in His­to­ry: 2153 Blasts from 1945–2015

Learn How Richard Feyn­man Cracked the Safes with Atom­ic Secrets at Los Alam­os

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.

Does Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity Suggest That There Is an Afterlife?: A Theoretical Physicist Explains

“Let’s talk about the physics of dead grand­moth­ers.” Thus does the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Sabine Hossen­felder start off the Big Think video above, which soon gets into Ein­stein’s the­o­ry of spe­cial rel­a­tiv­i­ty. The ques­tion of how Hossen­felder man­ages to con­nect the for­mer to the lat­ter should raise in any­one curios­i­ty enough to give these ten min­utes a watch, but she also address­es a cer­tain com­mon cat­e­go­ry of mis­con­cep­tion. It all began, she says, when a young man posed to her the fol­low­ing ques­tion: “A shaman told me that my grand­moth­er is still alive because of quan­tum mechan­ics. Is this right?”

Upon reflec­tion, Hossen­felder arrived at the con­clu­sion that “it’s not entire­ly wrong.” For decades now, “quan­tum mechan­ics” has been hauled out over and over again to pro­vide vague sup­port to a range of beliefs all along the spec­trum of plau­si­bil­i­ty. But in the dead-grand­moth­er case, at least, it’s not the applic­a­ble area of physics. “It’s actu­al­ly got some­thing to do with Ein­stein’s the­o­ry of spe­cial rel­a­tiv­i­ty,” she says. With that par­tic­u­lar achieve­ment, Ein­stein changed the way we think about space and time, prov­ing that “every­thing that you expe­ri­ence, every­thing that you see, you see as it was a tiny, lit­tle amount of time in the past. So how do you know that any­thing exists right now?”

In Ein­stein’s descrip­tion of phys­i­cal real­i­ty, “there is no unam­bigu­ous notion to define what hap­pens now; it depends on the observ­er.” And “if you fol­low this log­ic to its con­clu­sion, then the out­come is that every moment could be now for some­one. And that includes all moments in your past, and it also includes all moments in your future.” Ein­stein posits space and time as not two sep­a­rate con­cepts, but aspects of a sin­gle enti­ty called space­time, in which “the present moment has no fun­da­men­tal sig­nif­i­cance”; in the result­ing “block uni­verse,” past, present, and future coex­ist simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, and no infor­ma­tion is ever destroyed, just con­tin­u­al­ly rearranged.

“So if some­one you knew dies, then, of course, we all know that you can no longer com­mu­ni­cate with this per­son. That’s because the infor­ma­tion that made up their per­son­al­i­ty dis­pers­es into very sub­tle cor­re­la­tions in the remains of their body, which become entan­gled with all the par­ti­cles around them, and slow­ly, slow­ly, they spread into radi­a­tion that dis­pers­es through­out the solar sys­tem, and even­tu­al­ly, through­out the entire uni­verse.” But one day could bring “some cos­mic con­scious­ness­es which will also be spread out, and this infor­ma­tion will be acces­si­ble again” — in about a bil­lion years, any­way, which will at least give grand­ma’s reassem­bled intel­li­gence plen­ty to catch up on.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Is There Life After Death?: Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, Sam Har­ris & More Explore One of Life’s Biggest Ques­tions

Elie Wiesel (RIP) Talks About What Hap­pens When We Die

Is There an After­life? Christo­pher Hitchens Spec­u­lates in an Ani­mat­ed Video

Einstein’s The­o­ry of Rel­a­tiv­i­ty Explained in One of the Ear­li­est Sci­ence Films Ever Made (1923)

Is There Life After Death?: John Cleese and a Pan­el of Sci­en­tists Dis­cuss That Eter­nal Ques­tion

Albert Ein­stein On God: “Noth­ing More Than the Expres­sion and Prod­uct of Human Weak­ness”

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.

J. Robert Oppenheimer Explains How, Upon Witnessing the First Nuclear Explosion, He Recited a Line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I Am Become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds”

No mat­ter how lit­tle we know of the Hin­du reli­gion, a line from one of its holy scrip­tures lives with­in us all: “Now I am become Death, the destroy­er of worlds.” This is one facet of the lega­cy of J. Robert Oppen­heimer, an Amer­i­can the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist who left an out­sized mark on his­to­ry. For his cru­cial role in the Man­hat­tan Project that dur­ing World War II pro­duced the first nuclear weapons, he’s now remem­bered as the“father of the atom­ic bomb.” He secured that title on July 16, 1945, the day of the test in the New Mex­i­can desert that proved these exper­i­men­tal weapons actu­al­ly work — that is, they could wreak a kind of destruc­tion pre­vi­ous­ly only seen in visions of the end of the world.

“We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppen­heimer remem­bered in 1965. “A few peo­ple laughed, a few peo­ple cried. Most peo­ple were silent. I remem­bered the line from the Hin­du scrip­ture, the Bha­gavad Gita; Vish­nu is try­ing to per­suade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his mul­ti-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroy­er of worlds.’ ”

The trans­la­tion’s gram­mat­i­cal archaism made it even more pow­er­ful, res­onat­ing with lines in Ten­nyson (“I am become a name, for always roam­ing with a hun­gry heart”), Shake­speare (“I am come to know your plea­sure”), and the Bible (“I am come a light into the world, that whoso­ev­er believeth on me should not abide in dark­ness”).

But what is death, as the Gita sees it? In an inter­view with Wired, San­skrit schol­ar Stephen Thomp­son explains that, in the orig­i­nal, the word that Oppen­heimer speaks as “death” refers to “lit­er­al­ly the world-destroy­ing time.” This means that “irre­spec­tive of what Arju­na does” — Arju­na being the afore­men­tioned prince, the nar­ra­tive’s pro­tag­o­nist — every­thing is in the hands of the divine.” Oppen­heimer would have learned all this while teach­ing in the 1930s at UC Berke­ley, where he learned San­skrit and read the Gita in the orig­i­nal. This cre­at­ed in him, said his col­league Isidor Rabi, “a feel­ing of mys­tery of the uni­verse that sur­round­ed him like a fog.”

The neces­si­ty of the Unit­ed States’ sub­se­quent drop­ping of not one but two atom­ic bombs on Japan, exam­ined in the 1965 doc­u­men­tary The Deci­sion to Drop the Bomb (below), remains a mat­ter of debate. Oppen­heimer went on to oppose nuclear weapons, describ­ing him­self to an appalled Pres­i­dent Har­ry Tru­man as hav­ing “blood on my hands.” But in devel­op­ing them, could he have sim­ply seen him­self as a mod­ern Prince Arju­na? “It has been argued by schol­ars,” writes the Eco­nom­ic Times’ Mayank Chhaya, “that Oppen­heimer’s approach to the atom­ic bomb was that of doing his duty as part of his dhar­ma as pre­scribed in the Gita.” He knew, to quote anoth­er line from that scrip­ture brought to mind by the nuclear explo­sion, that “if the radi­ance of a thou­sand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splen­dor of the Mighty One” — and per­haps also that splen­dor and wrath may be one.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2020. In the light of the new Oppen­heimer film, we’re bring­ing it back.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Oppen­heimer: The Man Behind the Bomb

The “Shad­ow” of a Hiroshi­ma Vic­tim, Etched into Stone, Is All That Remains After 1945 Atom­ic Blast

Haunt­ing Unedit­ed Footage of the Bomb­ing of Nagasa­ki (1945)

63 Haunt­ing Videos of U.S. Nuclear Tests Now Declas­si­fied and Put Online

53 Years of Nuclear Test­ing in 14 Min­utes: A Time Lapse Film by Japan­ese Artist Isao Hashimo­to

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include 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, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson, High School Wrestling Team Captain, Once Invented a Physics-Based Wrestling Move

We know that Neil deGrasse Tyson was some­thing of a wun­derkind dur­ing his high school years. If you’re an OC reg­u­lar, you’ve read all about how Carl Sagan per­son­al­ly recruit­ed Tyson to study with him at Cor­nell. Deft­ly, polite­ly, the young Tyson declined and went to Har­vard.

There’s per­haps anoth­er side of the pre­co­cious Tyson you might not know as much about. The ath­let­ic side. While a stu­dent at The Bronx High School of Sci­ence, Tyson (class of 1976) wore bas­ket­ball sneak­ers belong­ing to the Knick­’s Walt “Clyde” Fra­zier. He ran an impres­sive 4:25 mile. And he cap­tained the school’s wrestling team, dur­ing which time he con­jured up a new-fan­gled wrestling move. In pro­fes­sion­al wrestling, Ric Flair had the dread­ed Fig­ure Four Leg Lock, and Jim­my Snu­ka, a dev­as­tat­ing Super­fly Splash. Tyson? He had the feared “Dou­ble Tidal Lock.” He explains and demon­strates the physics-based move in the video below, orig­i­nal­ly record­ed at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Indi­anapo­lis.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Andy Warhol’s One Minute of Pro­fes­sion­al Wrestling Fame (1985)

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Watch a New Animation of Richard Feynman’s Ode to the Wonder of Life, with Music by Yo-Yo Ma

…I would like not to under­es­ti­mate the val­ue of the world view which is the result of sci­en­tif­ic effort. We have been led to imag­ine all sorts of things infi­nite­ly more mar­velous than the imag­in­ings of poets and dream­ers of the past.

- Richard Feyn­man

In 1955, the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist Richard Feyn­man gave a talk on the val­ue of sci­ence to mem­bers of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences at at Cal­tech Uni­ver­si­ty.

In the wake of the destruc­tion of Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki, his involve­ment with the Man­hat­tan Project had been cause for seri­ous depres­sion and soul search­ing.

He con­clud­ed that the pur­suit of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge remained valu­able to soci­ety, even though such knowl­edge comes with­out oper­at­ing instruc­tions, and thus can be put to evil pur­pos­es.

In the Cal­tech speech, he cit­ed the life improv­ing tech­no­log­i­cal and med­ical break­throughs that are the result of sci­en­tif­ic explo­rations, as well as the sci­en­tif­ic field­’s alle­giance to the con­cept that we must be free to dis­sent, ques­tion, and dis­cuss:

If we sup­press all dis­cus­sion, all crit­i­cism, pro­claim­ing “This is the answer, my friends; man is saved!” we will doom human­i­ty for a long time to the chains of author­i­ty, con­fined to the lim­its of our present imag­i­na­tion.

(This strikes a pro­found chord in 2022, remem­ber­ing how some extreme­ly vocal politi­cians and cit­i­zens took chang­ing pub­lic health man­dates as evi­dence of con­spir­a­cy, rather than an ever-deep­en­ing sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing of how an unfa­mil­iar virus was oper­at­ing.)

Any child with an inter­est in STEM will be grat­i­fied to learn that Feyn­man also found much to admire in “the fun …which some peo­ple get from read­ing and learn­ing and think­ing about (sci­ence), and which oth­ers get from work­ing in it.

Through­out his speech, he refrained from tech­ni­cal jar­gon, using lan­guage that those whose pas­sions skew more toward the arts can under­stand to invoke the expe­ri­ence of sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery.

His med­i­ta­tions con­cern­ing the inter­con­nect­ed­ness between every mol­e­cule “stu­pid­ly mind­ing its own busi­ness” and every­thing else in the known uni­verse, includ­ing him­self, a human stand­ing beside the sea, try­ing to make sense of it all, is of a piece with Shake­speare and Walt Whit­man.

Unti­tled Ode to the Won­der of Life

by Richard Feyn­man

I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think.

There are the rush­ing waves

moun­tains of mol­e­cules

each stu­pid­ly mind­ing its own busi­ness

tril­lions apart

yet form­ing white surf in uni­son.

Ages on ages before any eyes could see

year after year

thun­der­ous­ly pound­ing the shore as now.

For whom, for what?

On a dead plan­et

with no life to enter­tain.

Nev­er at rest

tor­tured by ener­gy

wast­ed prodi­gious­ly by the sun

poured into space.

A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea

all mol­e­cules repeat

the pat­terns of one anoth­er

till com­plex new ones are formed.

They make oth­ers like them­selves

and a new dance starts.

Grow­ing in size and com­plex­i­ty

liv­ing things

mass­es of atoms

DNA, pro­tein

danc­ing a pat­tern ever more intri­cate.

Out of the cra­dle

onto dry land

here it is

stand­ing: atoms with con­scious­ness;

mat­ter with curios­i­ty.

Stands at the sea,

won­ders at won­der­ing: I

a uni­verse of atoms

an atom in the uni­verse

The Mar­gin­a­lian’s (for­mer­ly Brain Pick­ings) Maria Popo­va seizes on this inter­lude for the final install­ment of her video series, The Uni­verse in Verse, above, col­lab­o­rat­ing with ani­ma­tor Kel­li Ander­son on a “per­spec­tive-broad­en­ing, mind-deep­en­ing” visu­al inter­pre­ta­tion of Feynman’s excerpt­ed remarks.

Flow­ing under and around Feynman’s nar­ra­tion is an orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion by cel­list Yo-Yo Ma, whose renown in the field of music is on par with Feynman’s in physics, and who notes in the intro­duc­tion to The Quotable Feyn­man:

While he paid close atten­tion to prob­lems we face and gen­er­ate, he also knew that humans are a sub­set of nature, and nature held for him the great­est fas­ci­na­tion — for the imag­i­na­tion of nature is far, far greater than the imag­i­na­tion of man, and nature guards her secrets jeal­ous­ly.

Read Feynman’s com­plete speech to the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences at at Cal­tech Uni­ver­si­ty here.

Watch all nine chap­ters of The Uni­verse in Verse here.

via The Mar­gin­a­lian

Relat­ed Con­tent 

The “Feyn­man Tech­nique” for Study­ing Effec­tive­ly: An Ani­mat­ed Primer

Richard Feynman’s “Lost Lec­ture:” An Ani­mat­ed Retelling

Richard Feynman’s “Note­book Tech­nique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

Richard Feynman’s Tech­nique for Learn­ing Some­thing New: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Is Now Com­plete­ly Online

What Ignit­ed Richard Feynman’s Love of Sci­ence Revealed in an Ani­mat­ed Video

- Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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