Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Feynman Doodles

I was looking at another blog today and saw a pencil sketch that appeared much like doodles. It made me think of a cool doodle page done by Richard Feynman, the great bongo playing, Nobel Prize winning physicist from Cal Tech who probably is most famous in the popular imagination for his o-ring in a glass of ice water demonstration at the Challenger hearings. The late Richard Feynman is on my top 10 list. The top 10 people that I want to have a beer with in Heaven. Even if Richard were still alive, I would have to wait and have the beer with him in Heaven…hoping that stupidity is left behind with the body. I might then be able to understand what in my current incarnation, stuck with a second rate brain, is far, far, beyond me. I read one of his books on quantum electro-dynamics. It took me about 20 minutes to read it. Not a long tome by any means it was about 90 pages long, it started out with a short text preamble. Then it went something like this:

“From the following:”

There were about 20 pages of equations employing symbols and a form of mathematics that I have never seen before or since.

“As such, it is obvious that:”

Another 15 pages of equations,


Twenty more pages of arcane math,

“Therefore the only logical conclusion is”

The book ended with 30 pages of additional arithmetical gobbley gook.

Note! Click on images for full size.

I do not have a clue what was said in the book. So I doubt that I would be interesting company to Richard unless I got a whole lot smarter, and I don’t see that happening with the brain I currently own. So hopefully intellects in Heaven are more equal, and Richard does not lose anything to achieve that equality. I became a Feynman groupie after reading his two popular books on his life Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think.

Getting back to this doodle page, I ran into it several years ago in one of my Internet searches. So today I looked in Google images and found the doodles. It along with many of Richard’s other works of art are at the excellent blog below. A word of caution, Richard did some nudes, and one in particular is rather explicit. If such images are troubling to you, I would recommend avoiding this site.

Sketches and Paintings by Richard Feynman

I am not sure why but I find Richard’s doodle page to be fascinating, perhaps a window into the mind of Richard Feynman. The equations mixed in with the artwork, some a bit risqué (the artwork--I have no way of knowing if the equations are risqué), and the graphs are intriguing. We don’t know in what context this page of doodles was created. Is this something that Richard doodled while bored, say at a Cal Tech budgetary meeting? Or might it have been a note pad and he checked the work of a student or did calculations at a physics conference, and then doodled the drawings later? Going the opposite direction, was the page from his sketch pad, the drawing went sour, and in a moment of boredom with the sketch, some insight popped into his mind and he worked it out with the equations and the graphs. Even more deliciously, was he working on the sketch and the insight popped into his mind and the sketch was sacrificed to the math of the insight in a moment of scientific creativity that gladly destroyed the artistic? Is the math even important? Do geniuses doodle in math the way composers construct and alter tunes in their heads, or a poet fiddles with a stanza? Or did Richard simply create a work of art that looked like a doodle page?

Taking a better look at the doodles, it seems the math has a purpose. In English, he states a condition and asks where this will go into action. The fact that I recognize the math, (not that I know what it means, but I at least recognize it as one would recognize something as written in French or Russian without knowing what it said) indicates that this problem is not going to win Richard a Nobel prize. Also I see no evidence of a Feynman diagram, so he is not working on a very deep quantum problem. The lack of a Feynman diagram also supports the idea that this is a real calculation, albeit for Richard probably a mundane calculation, and not one of those “the spirit of Richard Feynman” pieces of art that one so often sees with Einstein, an atom, and E=MC2. On a second look, I would have to say this started with the equations and Richard doodled the art after-wards.

I included several additional works from the above site. I believe the girl in the watercolor is Feynman’s daughter Michelle. I liked the precise nature of the napkin and wine glass. Looking at the various works included at the site, Feynman played with various styles and mediums. Obviously Richard Feynman is not going to be remembered as one of the great artists of the 20 century. However, I find it fascinating that Feynman, a genius in physics, could also create good pieces of art. Feynman had a better understanding of art than Picasso had of quantum physics. One of my goals in the afterlife is to pick Richard Feynman’s mind over a Guinness. I really have no desire to meet Picasso.

More Information On Richard Feynman: Richard Feynman Feynman Diagram "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"

BBC The Feynman Variations

EDIT 9-20-10 A friend sent me this BBC radio show on Feynman. It is excellent. You will hear some portions of Feynman's lectures delivered by himself and his bongo playing. It is one hour long.

You Tube, Feynman Fun To Imagine, With Christopher Sykes

Here is a fascinating series of discussions with Feynman explaining various notions of physics in layman's terms. "Genius. The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" by James Gleick

There is an extraordinary heart felt quote that I would like to share with you from Glieck’s excellent biography of Feynman. Paul Olum was president of the University of Oregon at the time of Feynman’s death in 1988. He had this to say about his friend and one time colleague.

“My wife died three years ago, also of cancer…I think about her a lot. I have to admit I have Dick’s books and other things of Dick’s. I have all of the Feynman lectures and other stuff. And there are things that have pictures of Dick on them. The article in Science about the Challenger episode. And also some of the recent books.

I get a terrible feeling every time I look at them. How could someone like Dick Feynman be dead? The great and wonderful mind. The extraordinary feeling for things and ability is in the ground and there’s nothing there anymore.

It’s an awful feeling. And I feel it---A lot of people have died and I know about it. My parents are both dead and I had a younger brother who is dead. But I have this feeling about just two people. About my wife and about Dick.

I suppose, although this wasn’t quite like childhood, it was graduate students together, and I do have more—I don’t know, romantic, or something, feeling about Dick, and I have trouble realizing that he’s dead. He was such an extraordinarily special person in the universe."

From: Genuis. The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. By James Gleick. Page 145.

What I find intriguing in the above quote is the sense of being lost. There is an overwhelming vulnerability in Olum’s words. This was not a carefully prepared statement by a lettered university president with post doctorate work in advanced mathematics. It is the genuine feeling of a man deeply crushed by the loss of his wife and friend. I doubt that many of us could carry on an intelligent conversation with Paul Olum regarding mathematics, but do we have any problem understanding the sentiment he expresses above? Below all that intelligence…all that raw intellectual horsepower—below the ability to see and understand concepts that are so far beyond the ordinary ken of the normal human mind...still lurks a humble human being who must wander alone in the depths of his grief. His words rang true with me, because I felt the same thing…not the same magnitude, but certainly the same feeling. How can such a magnificent mind not exist any longer? How can Richard Feynman be dead?

A thought came to me as I wrote the above paragraph, why is Feynman’s art fascinating? It certainly is not outstanding…it is not going to knock a critic’s socks off. Feynman’s art is fascinating in the same way that Olum’s grief is fascinating…it shows his humanity. He was not an emotionless super intelligent machine that simply spewed out concepts, equations, diagrams, and theories. He was a human being. He was a feeling man, obviously charmed by the female form, yet also playful with the various forms of sketching and art. I mentioned that I had read the book on quantum electro-dynamics—didn’t have a clue of what was being stated. Yet I can look at Richard’s art or read Paul Olum’s words and very much feel connected to another human Soul.

Image Credits:

Feynman’s Artwork:
Sketches and Paintings by Richard Feynman

Feynman with bongos:
University of Southern California, Feynman Webring

Feynman with o-ring at Challenger hearings:

Feynman Diagram: Feynman Diagram


  1. I really like the art. Hadn't seen any of it before. Thanks for the introduction. If this fellow joined you for dinner, what would you like to talk about? Who are the others on your list of ten? I've been trying to create a similar list of ten for years. I add names and eliminate names with abandon. Right now only four are on my list: Sir Johathan Miller, John Wilson, and my parents. (The eyes of the women are absolutely haunting. I checked out your references.)

  2. First a question for you, which John Wilson? Wikipedia lists about 87 of them.

    My list like yours is very fluid and probably is more like the top 100. Good topic for a post. But some names that hold permanent chairs on the list, FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Hildegard Von Bingen, Alan Watts, Einstein, Queen Elizabeth I, George Washington, Mary Magdalene, Adolph Hitler (assuming that the afterlife has improved his mental condition), Winston Churchill, St. Theresa of Avila, Martin Luther, Elaine & Heinz Pagels (as a couple), Thomas Moore, Helen Fisher, General Matthew Ridgeway, and sure why not go big Jesus of Nazareth, and yes my parents. (Not everyone is dead on the list--but will be someday and that's when I want to have the beer or dinner) I actually just had to quit. I could go on and on. It seems that 10 is a bit too finite.

    What would I discuss with Feynman over dinner. Quantum physics of course. Grand unified theory. Is there anything to string theory? Higgs boson and the opportunities at Cern. I would ask him about his first wife Arline who died of TB at a very young age. Feynman married her knowing that she may not live for long. I want to know about that, marriages hold a great interest for me. Finally I would want to talk to Richard about this quote:

    "It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama."

    * Statement (1959), quoted by James Gleick in Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992)

    Richard was a atheist in life. He has been gone for 22 years. I think he may have a different opinion now and I would love discuss it with him.

    God and physics because unlike Feynman, I believe the universe is God's stage for the drama of man

  3. "Feynman had a better understanding of art than Picasso had of quantum physics."

    I know a good book.

    It was , in fact, a great read.
    Talking about what Picasso actually was treading upon.

    Feynman's art made me feel better-as I see him as such a bright star. It seems for me to make him at least on some level within my grasp. I suspect Picasso-could hold his own.
    I introduced my daughter at 15 to his lectures, she surely wanted to be at Caltech for that reason.

    I so enjoyed reading this-your interest in things is wide reaching and parallels many that I love.

    1. Sarah,

      I suspect that I was sloppy with my claim. I will be the first to admit, Picasso's art is beyond me. I read a few things about the man over time that did not instill a sense of admiration for him. The fact is I don't like him very much, but truth be known I really don't know much about him. Perhaps I should learn more about Picasso.

      I checked out the book and it does look intriguing. Perhaps there is far more to Picasso than I have allowed. Cubism has always struck me as though the artist fed his finished canvass to a lawn mower and a five year old attempted to glue it back together.

      Thanks for stopping by and your very kind comment. Also thank you for the book suggestion. I should read it and perhaps come to a better understanding of Picasso. Einstein is well beyond my capacity for understanding.

  4. Yeah Picasso was the genius of his age.
    Sadly I think also the women lined up. A very interesting read is by the woman he loved that went on to marry Jonas Salk. Her biography is so great, Francois Gilot I think. Let me look.

    I read her book utterly enjoying her writing.

    I need to get the book to my daughter Sophia. I had her read Peggy Guggenheim's bio, I'll send this one to my kids too.

    I have a book of Picasso linocuts, they are some of the most beautiful prints I ever saw.

    Just these prints-

    I went to Antibes to the place he lived. Spending several days visiting those spaces. In there is a picture of a goat that is darn near one of the best works I ever saw. He had incredible skill.

    Boy, I hate to tell you how much I give him in terms of changing things for all time-seeing in a new, new way.

    I'm not thrilled with the fact he left so many women, they were his muses, and if you read Gilot you basically realize they were there because they wanted to be....

    1. Sarah, if I wasn't so damned dumb, I think you could make me appreciate Picasso. I am not sure that the wiring exists in my brain to comprehend it. I know it is missing to comprehend Feynman's physics.

      Thanks for sharing the links. I will check them out.

  5. this was a fun watch

    1. Oh this does look good. I will have to check this out later when I get time.

      Thanks for sharing.