My Time with Richard Feynman


Stephen Wolfram and Richard Feynman The following is a transcript of a lecture delivered at the Boston Public Library in April 2005. Idea Makers: Personal Perspectives on the Lives and Ideas of Some Notable People, edited by Stephen Wolfram, contains this article.

When I was 18, I met Richard Feynman, who was then 60 years old. And I believe I came to know him pretty well over the period of 10 years. First, while I was a member of the Caltech physics group. Then there was the time when we both worked as consultants at Thinking Machines Corporation, a once-thriving Boston firm. I don’t believe I’ve ever mentioned Feynman in public before. And there’s so much to say that I’m not sure where to begin.

But if there’s one moment that perfectly encapsulates Richard Feynman and my connection with him, it’s this. It was most likely 1982. I was at Feynman’s home, and our discussion had devolved into some kind of terrible scenario. I was ready to walk out the door. And Feynman came to a halt in front of me and remarked, “You know, you and I are extremely fortunate.” We always have our physics, no matter what else is going on.”

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Feynman was a physics enthusiast. I believe he enjoyed the procedure the most. The act of calculating It’s a game of finding things out. It didn’t seem to matter to him whether or not what came out was significant. Or strange and obscure. What was important to him was the discovery process. And he was frequently ruthless in his pursuit of it.

Some scientists, like myself, are motivated by the desire to construct massive intellectual structures. I believe Feynman was far more motivated by the sheer joy of conducting science during the years I knew him. He appeared to prefer to spend his time calculating and thinking things out. He was also an excellent calculator. In general, he’s the greatest human calculator we’ve ever seen.

It’s a fascinating sight to see. His mannerisms remained consistent throughout his career. He only ever utilised standard calculus and such. This is essentially nineteenth-century math. He had little faith in anything else. Feynman, on the other hand, could go anywhere he wanted with it. Nobody else compares to you.

It’s something I’ve always thought was amazing. He’d start with an issue and work his way through the problem, filling pages with computations. And in the end of it all, he’d receive the correct answer! But he wasn’t typically pleased with it. He’d go back after he’d received the answer and attempt to figure out why it was so apparent. And every now and again, he’d come up with one of Feynman’s famously simple explanations. And he’d never tell anybody about the mathematics that went into it. It was often a joke for him, having others be surprised by his apparently immediate physical intuition, not realising that it was the result of a lengthy, hard calculation.

He possessed a phenomenal formal intuition regarding the inner workings of his computations. So on. And he was always working to improve his intuition.

I recall a period — it had to have been the summer of 1985 — when I’d just recently learned a concept known as rule 30. That’s definitely my favourite scientific discovery of all time. And that’s how a lot of the new type of research that I’ve spent the last 20 years developing got started (and wrote about in my book A New Kind of Science).

Feynman and I were both in Boston at the time, and we’d spent the day discussing Rule 30. About how it got from that little black square at the top to all of this complex stuff. And then there’s the question of what it implies in terms of physics and so on.

We’d been crawling over the floor — with the assistance of a few others — attempting to apply metre rules to measure some characteristics of a massive printout of them. “Look, I just want to ask you one thing: how did you know rule 30 would do all this weird stuff?” Feynman said, a little conspiratorially. “You know who I am,” I explained, referring to my identity. “I didn’t,” says the narrator. I had a computer go through all of the potential rules. And I discovered it.” “Ah, now I feel a lot better,” he remarked. I was concerned that you may be able to find it out.”

Feynman and I spoke about rule 30 a lot more. He was desperate to acquire a sense of how it operated. He attempted to smash it with all of his regular tools. As though he was attempting to determine the slope of the line between order and chaos. He also computed. Using all of his standard calculus and such, He and his son Carl even spent a lot of time on a computer attempting to break rule 30.

And then one day he phones me and says, “OK, Wolfram, I’m not going to be able to break it.” “I believe you have a point.” This was very encouraging.

Over the years, Feynman and I attempted to collaborate on a number of projects. Before anybody had ever heard of quantum computers, I worked on them. On making a microprocessor that could create perfect physical randomness — or ultimately proving that it couldn’t be done. On whether all of the computing required to assess Feynman diagrams was really required. On whether the existence of an e–H t in statistical mechanics and an eiH t in quantum mechanics is a coincidence, What is the most basic fundamental phenomenon of quantum mechanics?

“Let’s sneak away and conduct some physics,” Feynman would remark frequently while we were both consulting for Thinking Machines in Boston. This was a common occurrence. Yes, I believe we mistook ourselves for being at the rear of a press conference on a new computer system, discussing the nonlinear sigma model. Feynman would usually do some calculations. With me constantly arguing that we should simply go to the computer and do it. That’s something I’d eventually do. After that, I’d receive some results. He’d get some results, too. Then we’d have a debate over who had the superior intuition about the outcomes.

By the way, it’s worth noting that Feynman didn’t dislike computers. He even went through the effort of obtaining an early Commodore PET personal computer, which he loved using. And he was extremely interested in the precursor of what would become Mathematica when I began working on it in 1979. We spent a lot of time discussing how it should operate. He was eager to share his problem-solving methods, including how he did integrals, notated his work, and organised it. I even managed to pique his curiosity about the issue of language design. Although I don’t believe there is anything straight from Feynman in Mathematica. But we can definitely perform his favourite integrals.

Feynman’s presence might be seen as a liability at times. I arranged several lectures by individuals who had worked on other systems while I was working on SMP — the predecessor of Mathematica. And Feynman was a regular visitor. And then one day, a speaker from a well-known computer science department showed there. I believe he was fatigued, and he ended up delivering a speech that was frankly not very good. And it eventually devolved into a game of making puns on the name of the system they’d created. Feynman became more irritated. And then he got up and made a long speech about how “If this is what computer science is about, it’s all nonsense……” I believe the speaker assumed I was trying to embarrass Feynman. And he’s been hating me for 25 years…

Feynman was, in many respects, an outcast. He didn’t enjoy working with other individuals for any purpose other than social ones. And he was mostly concerned with his own job. He didn’t want to read or listen to much since he preferred to do things himself. He did, however, attend physics lectures. He did, however, have a tendency of turning them into problem-solving exercises. And he wasn’t always as attentive to the speakers as he should have been. In fact, there was a moment when I was in charge of Caltech’s theoretical physics seminars. And he encouraged me to compete with him in finding fatal errors in the speakers’ arguments. As a result, several extremely tragic events occurred. However, it also resulted in some fascinating scientific findings.

One of Feynman’s characteristics is that he went to great lengths to organise his life so that he would be able to work on anything he wanted. He always seemed to have a plethora of issues. “You should go speak to him,” his long-time aide would suggest sometimes. Alternatively, he’ll resume his efforts to decipher Mayan hieroglyphs.”He maintained an aura of recklessness throughout his life. I’d argue it’s more about institutions than individuals.

And I was glad that dad spent so much time trying to offer me advice, even though I wasn’t always good at following it. He often said that “peace of mind is the most essential condition for creative activity.” And he believed that one should do everything possible to achieve that goal. And he believed that this implied, among other things, that one should avoid everything worldly, such as management.

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Of course, Feynman spent his whole life in academia, but I believe he considered most academics to be pretty boring. And I don’t believe he was fond of their usual outlook on the outer world. And he, himself, was a fan of the odd.

He’d often introduce me to the strange people that came to see him. I recall eating dinner with the charismatic founder of a semi-cult called EST at one point. It had been an unusual supper. After that, Feynman and I spoke about leadership for hours. Leaders like Robert Oppenheimer come to mind. And then there’s Brigham Young. What it is that allows exceptional leaders to inspire others to achieve amazing things fascinates and perplexes him. He wanted to acquire a feeling for it.

It’s kind of amusing. Despite his independence, Feynman was a very hard worker. I recall him preparing a small conference presentation at one point. He was really worried about it. “You’re a terrific speaker; what are you worried about?” I said “Yes, everyone thinks I’m a terrific speaker,” he added. So it implies they have higher expectations of me.” In fact, some of Feynman’s most popular pie have come from his off-the-cuff conference speeches.