A couple of weeks ago, I started giving some talks — I’m not going to go into any detail about where or why. The talks are basically very brief anecdotes of things in science that I find fascinating. I don’t know all of the subjects I talk about that well, so I do research first, but they are usually things that I’m aware of at least on a superficial level. They aren’t meant to go into any great detail, which is good for me since I’m trying to learn stuff also, as I do them. Anyway, I thought I’d share the one I’m planning on giving next week. Instead of talking about something from science, I’m going to talk about a person who I actually met way back when I was in college. Although some of this can be found in his autobiography, all three of the Los Alamos anecdotes were told to us at a dinner party at Page House at Caltech back around 1980 (give or take), where Mr. Feynman was our guest. The rest, I simply got from his Wikipedia page.
“Instead of my usual science anecdote, I decided instead to talk about an actual scientist, someone who I met back when I was in College, and who was considered to be one of the most brilliant Physicists alive, at least until his death from Cancer back in 1988. But instead of focusing on his scientific achievements, many of which are completely beyond me, and I could never really explain them to you. Instead, I’m going to focus on him as a person.
Richard Feynman was born May 11, 1918, in Queens, NY. His IQ was nothing extraordinary, but at age 15, he taught himself Trigonometry, Advanced Algebra, Infinite Series, Analytic Geometry, and both differential and integral calculus. He applied to Columbia for college but was refused because of a quota they had of Jewish Students. Instead, he attended MIT, where he studied Physics. Before he even graduated, he had already published two papers in Physics journals, and his paper on Cosmic Rays was even quoted by one of the great physicists of the day, Werner Heisenberg. All this before he got his degree.
After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, was recruited to Los Alamos to work on Uranium enrichment for what would become the Manhattan Project. I got to meet Feynman years later when he was a dinner guest at my student house at Caltech (where he was teaching at the time).
One of the many stories he told us was about how bad the security was at Los Alamos. The whole base was surrounded by a fence with barbed wire. Unfortunately, there was a big, gaping hole in the fence that virtually everyone, except for the MPs knew about. Being a practical joker, he decided to illustrate the vulnerability by playing a joke on them. He would sign out to leave the base, sneak back in through the hole in the fence, and then immediately sign out again. He repeated this until the MPs figured out that something was wrong, and only then did he explain the problem.
Another story he told was with regards to the safes that all of the higher ups had in their offices to store classified documents. One thing he noticed was that nearly everyone when they received a safe, would leave the combination at the default setting, which would usually be 0-0-0. Also, one other vulnerability he found was that people would always leave their safes open while they were in the office. What most people did not know was that Feynman’s father had been a locksmith so he had picked up a whole lot about locks of all kinds while he was growing up. One thing he could easily do is to look at the open safe and be able to tell immediately what the combination was. So, of course, instead of telling people about the vulnerability, he played another little joke on them – leaving notes in the sealed safes with the message, “Guess Who?”.
Newcomers to Los Alamos would quite often, late at night, hear the pounding of bongo drums coming from the desert. Such people would always ask about that, and the response would usually be “Oh that’s just crazy Feynman”.
If you want to hear more stories about Feynman, you can read the first half of his Autobiography, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman (Adventures of a Curious Character), it’s sequel What do you Care What Other People Think, or see the film “Infinity”, in which he and his wife were played by Matthew Broderick and Patricia Arquette – it tells about his experiences at Los Alamos, and about the relationship with his wife, who was dying of Tuberculosis while he was working there. Or, if you want, I can tell you more stories next time.”