More than just a brilliant physicist, Richard Feynman was also a larger-than-life character whose enthusiasm, boundless curiosity, and mischievous sense of humor made him a dynamic lecturer and memoirist, as well as leading him to pick locks and crack safes for fun. But the very traits that continue to charm science fans today also brought him to the attention of the FBI—and now, with the help of a recent Freedom of Information Act request, we know all the dirt they gathered on the bongo-playing physicist.
MuckRock, a website that helps people file FOIA requests, asked the FBI for its records on Feynman and received and published 361 pages of background checks, interviews with Feynman’s acquaintances, newspaper articles that mention him, and notes on the official investigation. Most of the material is boringly uniform: colleague after colleague asserts that Feynman is trustworthy and dependable, an outstanding scientist and a loyal American. Some interviews add information known to any reader of Feynman’s books: that he was engaging and social, outspoken about his lack of religion, with a wide range of interests that did not include politics. But while readers of Feynman’s semi-autobiographical writing will see certain behavior, such as Feynman learning to crack safes, as a fun and ultimately harmless, the FBI report reveals an all-too-serious perspective: “[Feynman] has been known to show impatience and temper at security problems and investigators…For example, [a colleague] recalled that at one time [Feynman] demonstrated to some security people how worthless the locking procedure was on confidential items and he demonstrated this fact by ‘picking the locks’ of secured cabinets.” An incident that the physicist was fond of portraying as a prank was, to the FBI, a refusal to conform to rules and a sign of potential sedition.
And one colleague, whose name was censored from the record, believed that even Feynman’s most innocuous idiosyncrasies, endearing to so many, were far more sinister and calculated. When this colleague failed to sufficiently convey his suspicion in his interview, he sent a letter to J. Edgar Hoover himself.
If this man is not a loyal citizen, he is extremely dangerous from the standpoint that he possesses an unusual personal magnetism which enables him to charm or fascinate individual persons or groups is he chooses to do so and to convince them of whatever he wishes them to believe about himself or about the ideas which he wishes to present…He is a superb showman and he counts heavily, I believe, on his reputation of being funny and on his disarming, boyish manner to cover activities he does not want the world to know. And he apparently deliberately seems to cultivate the appearance of being careless, happy-go-lucky, and absent-minded for a number of reasons—in part, it would seem, because these are effective devices for keeping people from looking beneath the surface—and because they make more acceptable the fact that he often breaks his word.
Although the letter reveals more about its writer’s paranoia and bitterness than about Feynman, it demonstrates how the Cold War and McCarthyism let even a blatant conspiracy theory make its way into an FBI report. Interestingly, while the writer sees even Feynman’s happy-go-lucky attitude as a dangerous façade, the physicist’s scientific genius doesn’t seem to be much of a threat: when the letter lists attributes that would make Feynman a good spy, the items include Feynman’s personal charm, his possession of photography equipment, and his “technical ability to evaluate scientific data.”
Image courtesy of NobelPrize.org