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Rough Drafts of Richard Feynman’s Ideas Head to Auction

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One of the titans of 20th-century physics, Richard Feynman deciphered the interplay of fundamental particles and forces. He wrote popular books in which he portrayed himself as a charming scientific rogue, and played a key role in the investigation of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger. While brilliant, he was not perfect. That becomes evident looking at some of his papers that go up for auction on Friday.

Feynman received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for key insights in understanding the quantum version of electromagnetism, and the medal and citation that came with it is the centerpiece of the auction, conducted by Sotheby’s in New York. But the assorted writings that are also for sale by his family reveal clues into how he worked and thought.

“We tend to have this idea of genius being someone who just sprung out of the womb and had these magical capabilities,” said Cassandra Hatton, the specialist at Sotheby’s in New York who is overseeing the auction. “And Feynman himself denied that fact. He always said, ‘Guys, there’s nothing. There’s no magic here. I’m just somebody who’s very interested and worked very hard and was very curious.’”

During World War II, Feynman was part of the Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. The physicists in Los Alamos, N.M., where the secret atomic research was conducted, were worried that workers producing plutonium in Oak Ridge, Tenn., were not heeding safety precautions. They wanted to explain the science of why the material was so dangerous.

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Feynman, in his 20s, flew to Oak Ridge to give the talk. Some of these pages may have been notes from that talk. Others may be versions he revised later for other talks to other audiences.

“He’ll come back to certain themes and work them over and over,” Ms. Hatton said, pointing to several versions of this atomic research paper.

Feynman, who died in 1988, donated his archive of scientific papers to the California Institute of Technology, where he spent much of his career. The papers offered at auction by his family are the leftovers, the scraps, the rough drafts. But that doesn’t mean they’re not valuable, Ms. Hatton said.

“I think they’re more important because they let us see how he got from A to Z,” she said. “They show us the steps. They show us the little mistakes and the things he crossed out and where he changed his mind and what he decided to refine.”

While some people are very particular about a pen or type of paper, Feynman usually grabbed whatever was closest and started scribbling, usually without noting a title, date or place. That made it challenging to organize the papers as sometimes he continued his thought on a different colored piece of paper with a different pen.

The written scribble on this sheet include the “Feynman diagrams” that he developed to quickly summarize a subatomic interaction with lines and squiggles.

A few of Feynman’s sketches are interspersed among his notes.

Included in the auction are books from Feynman’s library, including a textbook written by Paul Dirac, another giant of 20th-century physics. Feynman wrote comments in the margins. “Analyze this some day,” he wrote on one page.

In recent years, Feynman’s reputation as a womanizer has led some critics to re-evaluate his academic legacy. Some of his behavior, like dating undergraduates, would likely be grounds for academic sanction today.

Included in the random pieces of paper at auction is an example of some of this behavior: place mats from Gianonni’s, a strip club in Pasadena, Calif., not far from his home, where Feynman often went. While there, he would scribble on the backs of the place mats.

For the mathematical notations on this particular place mat, “We couldn't tie it to any specific problem,” Ms. Hatton said. “It seems almost like he was just playing around.”

In his book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” he recalled, “I’d sit in one of the booths and work a little physics on the paper place mats with the scalloped edges, and sometimes I’d draw one of the dancing girls or one of the customers, just to practice.”

One of Feynman’s most famous talks was “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” in 1959, which predicted the advent of nanotechnology, creating machines at the scale of molecules. This document, above, was found among the papers that the family had. It appears to have been prepared for a version of the talk given at El Camino College in California.

Feynman was also well known as a lecturer, striving to find the clearest way to explain a difficult concept.

On March 13, 1964, he gave a talk in a freshman physics class at Caltech about the motion of planets. An archivist found a transcript of the lecture, once believed lost, and it was turned into a book, “Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun.” In sifting through the papers that the family possessed, “What we found is a much more extensive version of that lost lecture,” Ms. Hatton said.

Outside of physics, Feynman did magic and played bongo drums. This is a tambourine that Feynman bought in Brazil. He taught himself Portuguese and how to play the tambourine in a samba band.

The Nobel medal is 23-karat gold. (Since 1980, they are now 18-karat gold plated with 24-karat gold.)

Feynman was not happy about the 4 a.m. phone call that he had won a Nobel. He complained about being woken up and hung up. He later recounted in “Surely You’re Joking”:

Then I began to think, ‘How can I turn this all off? I don’t want any of this!’ So the first thing was to take the telephone off the hook…. I went down to the study to think: What am I going to do? Maybe I won’t accept the Prize. What would happen then? Maybe that’s impossible….”

Feynman did go to Stockholm to accept the prize. During the ceremony, he doodled in one of the booklets.


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