Richard Feynman and Narrative

Oct 18, 2022

Many aspiring scientists idolize Richard Feynman – an eccentric Nobel-prize-winning physicist who seemed to have a never-ending list of anecdotes and stories – cracking an uncrackable safe that held nuclear secrets, pranking colleagues with clever tricks, playing bongos, fixing up his car. While many aspects of Feynman's life were blatantly misogynistic and problematic, he somehow painted himself as a sort-of Frank Sintra mathematical genius that could distill complex science into simple terms while being "cool."

Others have chronicled his anecdotes in books, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, "What Do You Care What Other People Think?", Pleasure of Finding Things Out (Feynman never wrote one himself).

But Feynman's anecdotes were intentional. Colleagues would talk about how he would obsess over narratives. A longtime "rival" and fellow Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Murray Gell-Mann, never achieved the same level of pop culture fame as Feynman. Gell-Mann had the same propensity for marketing complex ideas: he was the one who discovered and named quarks, a subatomic particle that is a fundamental part of matter. The quirky name comes from James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.

Three quarks for Muster Mark!

Sure he has not got much of a bark

And sure any he has it’s all beside the mark.

But Gell-Mann couldn't conjure up narratives like Feynman. It wasn't just what you did and how you did it but how you told the story.