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.