What did Feynman learn from his father?

Jun 19, 2021 0 comments
richard feynman and his father on father's day

When Richard Feynman was asked in an interview whether anybody could become a physicist like him, he candidly replied: Of course. I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There are no miracle people.

That may hold true. However, Feynman's parents played the most important roles in giving his character shape. While from his father Richard learned to challenge orthodox thinking; from his mother he gained a unique sense of humor.

Richard was born on May 11, 1918 in New York city to Lucille Phillips, a teacher turned homemaker and Melville Feynman, a military uniform salesman who was an immigrant from Minsk, then part of the Russian Empire.

Melville, who never himself had the opportunity to make a career in science, encouraged both his son and daughter Joan (nine years younger than Richard) to take up science. She went on to become a distinguished astrophysicist herself.

Feynman also became famous for his work on quantum electrodynamics which earned him the 1965 Nobel Prize. In an interview thereafter he revealed: My father taught me very early the difference between knowing and understanding.

Feynman explained: When I was a small boy, my father used to sit me on his lap and read to me from encyclopedia Britannica, say about the dinosaurs.

That this thing was 25 feet tall and its head was 6 feet across and so on. 'But he would stop always', Feynman recalled. 'What does that even mean?'

richard feynman's father story how to learn tips

'Suppose the dinosaur stood in our front yard, then it would be high enough to put its head through the window - but not quite - because the head would be too wide and it would probably break the window apart.'

That is how Melville translated every little fact into known reality and Richard thus started to grow an unbound sense of imagination from early age, thanks to his father.

Apart from that, Feynman's modesty was also a gift from his father. When questioned, if his work was worthy of a Nobel Prize, he said: I don’t like honors, honors is epaulettes, honors is uniforms. My papa brought me up this way. I can’t stand it, honors bother me.

For him, the true honor was in the observation that other people used his work and derived inspiration from it. Those are the real things, Richard added.

Melville died suddenly on October 8, 1946 around the same time when Arline, Feynman's first wife had passed away. Richard suffered from depression as a result and could not continue doing physics for some time. It was too deep a sorrow.

In the end, what did Feynman gain most from his father? One can say, his childlike curiosity that he maintained throughout his life. But more importantly the bond that they shared was more that of a loving teacher and a student. Feynman thus learned how to teach from his father.


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