Who Got Feynman's Office?

By Sean Carroll | September 24, 2006 1:47 pm

Actually, string theorist John Schwarz now occupies Richard Feynman’s old office at Caltech.

But…

I got Feynman’s desk.

Feynman's Desk

Caltech has a room devoted to Feynman memorabilia, and they really want this desk. (Feynman-worship is quite the industry here; the bookstore has a section labeled “Feynman” in the same way an ordinary bookstore would have sections labeled “Physics” or “Women’s Studies.”) But Helen Tuck, who was Feynman’s secretary and still occasionally visits, insists that the desk be used by a working physicist. My impression is that the desk is given to the most senior person in the theory group who is not sufficiently senior to get all brand-new fancy furniture; at the moment, that person is I. (In the background, one can discern the winner of the ultimate showdown.)

I looked for little diagrams carved into the wood, but haven’t found any yet.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal
  • http://ansobol.blogsome.com Andrei Sobolevskii

    In the new building of the Cavendish lab in Cambridge (obviously, UK) they have a lobby filled with Cavendish memorabilia, including an inconspicuous old leather-covered desk with a piece of paper saying: “Please do not put tea or coffee cups on Professor Maxwell’s desk.”

  • http://vulpes82.blogspot.com Frank

    Wow, you’re really neat. All the other academics’ desks/offices I’ve ever seen have been riots of paper and clutter.

  • Matt B.

    Is that Gnome or MacOSX on your desktop?

    Which brings to mind… what OS would Feynman use?

  • http://snews.bnl.gov/popsci/contents.html Blake Stacey

    I recall a comment by Danny Hillis to the effect that the only programming language Feynman really knew at all well was BASIC. He even thought up a parallel-processing version of BASIC to describe algorithms for the early Thinking Machines computers.

    This comes out of Most of the Good Stuff, which I read about a year ago and don’t have with me now. So it goes.

  • http://biocurious.com/ PhilipJ

    There’s irony for you [John Schwarz in Feynman's old office], given that Feynman thought rather little of string theory.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/02/roots-and-rings-of-history.html Plato

    Where is Murray Gell-Mann’s office in relation to Feynman’s?

    Feynman’s Rainbow,” by Leonard Mlodinow Warner Books 2003 gives a little history of Gell Mann’s and Feynman’s relation besides what he thought of strings and some of the office stuff that went on with the secretary.

    Have you Pull the drawers out and looked underneath? :)

  • citrine

    No wonder you are smiling so victoriously! The desk looks very “modern” in style. I expected to see a more old-fashioned piece of furniture.

    I echo Frank’s statement (post #2). Are you still waiting for your books and files to arrive, or to cart the boxes from home to office?

    It seems as if theoreticians fall into two categories – those who keep all their calculations for possible future reference and those who do not. I know that there are various shades of grey here – keep some; jettison the others – but overall which category do you fall into?

    And, most importantly, where is your cup of coffee? Have you decided not to besmirch The Desk with possible coffee stains?

  • http://web.mit.edu/sahughes/www/ Scott H.

    Had dinner with Marc Kamionkowski last week. He mentioned that you were particularly smitten with your office!

  • http://web.mit.edu/sahughes/www/ Scott H.

    Whoops, meant desk there. Grr.

  • Say Lee

    It so happened that my brother sent me a link to the 1974 CalTech commencement speech given by Feynman entitled “Cargo Cult Science”, which he explained by way of an example:

    “In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

    Then he spoke at length on scientific integrity as he deemed it, again by way of an exmaple:

    “For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of his work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing– and if they don’t support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.”

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    My natural state is much higher entropy than that shown here; it’s just that the raw materials are still packed in boxes at this point. Soon enough my coffee stains will join those of the giants on whose shoulders I’m standing.

  • Chris Greene

    Why is there a picture of Mr. Rogers in a physics office?

  • jackie m.

    Re: higher entropy offices — check out George Rieke’s.

  • Dave C.

    Hi Sean,

    Wondering what’s going on at Caltech Theory these days; has there been anything notable from your team anytime recently?

    Take care,
    Dave

  • http://www.chrononaut.org/~dm/ David Moles

    Dave, isn’t that what the arxiv.org search page is for?

  • joe

    funny thing, I was reading Danny Hillis recollections about R. Feynman a few days ago here. Interesting stuff about RPF, including BASIC. Also, RPF was a sexist! (he treated women as servants). Very uncool. That desk has Larry Summers all over it!!

    I met Danny a few yrs ago & he’s involved in some similar projects as me. I was surprised to find this site, which had pics of him with some famous Technology & Science people (B. Green, L. Randall, C. Venter, D. Kamen, B. Joy)

  • Jack

    It’s painful to hear that the Feynman cult is still in full swing. Just recently I heard a physics undergraduate breathlessly retailing one of Feynman’s obviously mendacious stories about his sex life. What shall we call this — Cargo Cult Sexuality? God, are Caltech undergrads still that lame?

  • http://phoenixwoman.blogspot.com Phoenix Woman

    Jack: Jealousy is so unbecoming in you.

    Congrats, Sean. Most Persian cats know more about physics than I do, yet even I have heard of Feynman.

  • Jeff

    that’s a sweet desk even without the heritage behind it. Very cool. Come up to JPL someday and give a talk Sean. We’ve got lots of great lecture series here. I’m sure something could be arranged.

  • Peter

    Sean, I think it’s time to tell the world the truth… you only left Chicago because I finally beat you at poker.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance JoAnne

    Cool! If you leave blank paper on the desk, do calculations spontaneously appear?

  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    If you leave blank paper on the desk, do calculations spontaneously appear?

    I see an *excellent* science fiction movie in the making …

  • http://wishsubmission.blogspot.com Manas Shaikh

    “I see an *excellent* science fiction movie in the making …”

    science fiction? I see a sci-ghost story [:)]

  • http://www.brannenworks.com/dmaa.pdf Carl Brannen

    I’ve been enjoying “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman” recently and it is pretty clear that the man had some issues in his personal life. I would only hope that some of his stories aren’t based on truth.

    The part of the book I found most interesting was a few pages on his “checkerboard” model of electron propagation in 1+1 dimensions. It turns out that this has an interesting relation to the old zitterbewegung model of the electron and has applications in the density formulation of QM that I’m busily writing up. What was interesting was that the book included a reproduction of a page in his notes on the subject.

  • Aaron

    …it is pretty clear that the [Feyn]man had some issues in his personal life…

    Who doesn’t have some issues in her personal life? :)

  • http://WindandTides? Bob E.

    Perhaps there ARE carvings in the desk – Feynman diagrams which just happen to follow the grain of the wood which makes them difficult to discern. Either very strange wood and/or very strange interactions represented.
    Bob.

  • http://dabacon.org/pontiff Dave Bacon

    Where is Murray Gell-Mann’s office in relation to Feynman’s?

    I think Gell-Mann’s office was two doors down from Feynmans with Helen Tuck in between the two. Why is my brain filled with this junk?!

  • Seth

    Why would anyone get brand-new fancy furniture when they could have Feynman’s desk?

  • jeffsan

    I interviewed Feynman for a radio biography of Einstein I did for Canadian Broadcasting and National Public Radio in 1979 for the centenary of his birth. The majority of physicists I interviewed had European accents (Wigner, Bethe, Bergmann, Strauss, Pais, etc.). Feynman’s Brooklyn accent was a vivid reminder that the centre of gravity of physics had moved from Europe to the U.S., partly as a result of the Nazi scourge in the 1930s. He was very direct and forthright, and could explain physics better than most anyone I’ve ever met.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Jeff (19) — Sure, always happy to come up to JPL. Not that I know very much about actually propelling any jets.

    JoAnne (21) — I’ve been leaving blank pieces of paper all over the place, but so far they’re still pretty blank.

    Gell-Mann’s office is indeed two doors down; John Preskill is there now.

    And everyone — don’t believe anything Peter (20) says! He didn’t “beat” me, I just thought it would be gracious at my last poker game in Chicago to let someone else win for a change.

  • http://snews.bnl.gov/popsci/contents.html Blake Stacey

    I got the Classic Feynman hardback for Christmas; it’s a compendium of the Surely You’re Joking and What Do You Care What Other People Think? stories meant to last for the ages. Ralph Leighton adds an interesting footnote after one of Feynman’s sexcapade stories, in which he notes that Feynman insisted those stories be included to prove that “this purported hero had feet of clay” (or words to that effect).

    Y’know, if my wife had just died, and I thought myself even a tiny bit responsible for a tool which I felt would destroy human civilization — even if I started work on it to defeat the Nazis — I would probably hit the New Mexico nightclubs too. Of course, I wouldn’t have the good luck that Feynman did.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/02/roots-and-rings-of-history.html Plato

    At the time Leonard Mlodinow was going through trying issues about the direction of his career in writing and science. His conversations with Feynmen were really quite interesting.

    Like the desk, this brings a certain nostalgia to the topic of, whose coffee stains will join those of the giants on whose shoulders Sean is standing?” Oh, and no “Philosophical pandering” while your in Feynman’s chair(assuming it belongs too?).

    At that time, Feynman was fighting the cancer? The secretary, might remember Leonard?

    Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyerspace by Leonard Mlodinow FreePress 2001 is another fine book to read.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/02/roots-and-rings-of-history.html Plato

    Nope! As I look, chair would have been made of “real wood” with some cushions?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Sean, maybe you gotta leave the exact same type of paper (and nearby pen) that Feymann used!

  • jay

    And also some fancy door lock for your office to lure Feynman geist in!

  • steve

    i’m currently desk challenged, how much do you want for it?

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    “Sean, maybe you gotta leave the exact same type of paper (and nearby pen) that Feymann used!”

    If an inkblot appears spontaneously on a piece of paper on Feynman’s desk will that be proof of a reverse microstate blackhole?

    Are we looking for ghost particles, or gravitons?
    Are we trying to open a portal into other dimensions and let ghost particles into our four dimensional space?
    Didn’t someone say (spirits) and ghosts don’t exist.
    Well I guess Feynman should know (one way or another).

  • Troy

    As for which computer Feynman would have, I recall that his accident involving a street-curb was related to his excitement on getting a new PC. If memory serves, this was in early 1984. Not too many interesting MS-DOS PCs were coming out then…

  • Dave C.

    Is it just me or do others here also share the following sentiment?:

    Feynman’s ‘Lectures’ (on Physics) aren’t all that good when you take a *fair* and *objective* look at them; it’s one of those “classics” which gain their prominence because of the author’s notoriety.

    How many here would actually contend (with reasonable certaintly) that Feynman’s ‘Lectures’ are as good as Landau / Lifschitz’s ‘Course of Theoretical Physics’ (despite the latter being a formidable reading)?

    I really don’t know – or even understand – why there is such enthusiasm over these particular (reading) books; in fact, when I first read them – actually I read the first 10 chapters of vol. I before becoming overly bored by their silly brooklyn-style approach to explaining rather simple mechanics concepts – I really didn’t feel I was reading anything profoundly important – just standard concepts explained in Feynman’s idiosyncratic style.

    Does anyone here also feel the same?

    Dave C.

  • NN

    #39: No, I definitely do not share your view on the Feynman’s Lectures. While Landau’s books are definitely great in their own way, Feynman’s Lectures are amazing for clarity and depth.

    My clear favourite is Volume III; I have yet to come across a quantum mechanics book that explains so much with so little math pre-req.

    The `weakest’ was Vol. I, but even that had so many gems, like SR, radiation, stat. mech, thermodynamics… But even the other chapters had more depth than you can find in books to this day. Above all I immensely enjoyed his philosophy in giving the lectures— ” I tried very hard to make all the statements as accurate as possible, to point out in every case where the equations and ideas fitted into the body of physics, and how–when they learned more–things would be modified.” All this is a freshman physics course—amazing!!

    I think prior to this, all physics books were very dull.

  • thm

    #39: I admit I don’t actually own all the Feynman Lectures but I definitely think that Landau and Lifshitz fit the description as a “classic” that gains “prominence because of the author’s notoriety.” L&L is obtuse and brief to the point of handwaving. Few dare criticize it, though, else they appear too stupid to do physics.

  • J

    Hey Sean, speaking of poker. I’m playing NL hold’em the other day and
    am in late position with A4s. A loose player limps in before me, I raise
    and he calls. Flop comes rainbow 532. Loose limper goes all in. I’m
    thinking he is loose, but not loose enough to call my raise with 64 and
    so he must have flopped a set. I call. Loose limper shows pocket J5!
    He’s all in with 5′s and a J kicker! Turn and river come J,5 to give him
    a boat on the river. What are the odds?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Everyone loves a bad beat story. The oracle tells me — he had about a 3% chance of beating you, and about a 2% chance of tying. But I’m guessing he figured he had top pair and was trying to steal.

    It was Peter, wasn’t it?

  • cynic

    Re the psychic physics writing: perhaps you should start something, get stuck and leave it out overnight. This might tempt the ghost of Schwinger, who would be used to nocturnal working practices, to pop in and whack out a full solution, much a he was reputed to do rather more often than was good for his colleagues’ self esteem, when he was young. It might also give him the opportunity to put onover on Dick, not that he was unduly competitive

  • nc

    Great, since you got his desk maybe you have the best excuse to do another post about Feynman’s reasons for saying string theory is held together with bits of [imaginary] string, can’t predict anything (despite having the extra dimensions specially selected to make it compatible with particle physics and gravity), and is overhyped. I know you did a post before on string, but it is lingering on like a sick Dodo. Maybe you can put it out of its misery? ;-)

  • http://vacua.blgospot.com Jim Harrison

    I’m interested in what physicists think of Feynman’s lectures. My impression is that the books never worked very well as textbooks, in part because, despite their rather modest math level, they attempted to convey the meaning of physical ideas, i.e. they were too ambitious.

    I know from my days as an editor of math and stat textbooks that most undergrads would rather memorize seven pages of formulas than wrap their heads around the meaning of one equation–they learn proofs the way that traditional Muslims learn the Koran. Books that focused on conceptual understanding were often flops in the classroom, even if they were widely admired by profs. Is that the problem with Feynman?

  • nc

    Jim: that’s the brains of his lectures, not the problem with them. Those with a poor memory for equations have to make do with understanding the physics, so we can derive equations whenever needed. (Not obviously the case for string theorists, who don’t have any solid equations, at least not any predictive ones.)

  • J

    nc, if you want to bash string theory, go ahead, but I suggest you look
    for better arguments than Feynman didn’t like it. First of all, he didn’t want
    to be an Eddington in his old age so he avoided all formal topics and worked
    on subjects of immediate phenomenological interest (like QCD jets). He would
    have been as wary of supersymmetry, supergravity, loop quantum
    gravity, or anything else. Second,
    he knew little about the theory and was no position to judge. And finally,
    he was more sympathetic in private than you might guess.

  • Uncle Enzo

    Forza Feynman, Forza his desk, and Forza Italia!

  • nc

    J, gets your facts straight please. Kaku states in a forthcoming New Scientist article that privately Feynman was far LESS sympathetic than in public!

    ‘(Schwarz remembers meeting Richard Feynman in the elevators during these dark years. Feynman would say to him, with a smirk, “And how many dimension are we in today, John?”)

    - http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=457#comment-15841

  • J

    nc, Kaku? In the New Scientist? Now there is a reliable source
    if ever there was one. My facts are quite straight.

  • Jack

    “Y’know, if my wife had just died, and I thought myself even a tiny bit responsible for a tool which I felt would destroy human civilization…”

    Come now. Even *Feynman* never made such claims about his tool.

  • http://www.leekottner.com Lee Kottner

    I wanna know who got Feynman’s bongos, or are those in the cargo cult museum?

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/09/why-do-physicists-want-to-study.html Plato

    Quasar9:

    If an inkblot appears spontaneously on a piece of paper on Feynman’s desk will that be proof of a reverse microstate blackhole?

    Maybe the “inkblot” is like Piglet describing the Heffalump,. in Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne?

    It depends on what you want to see? :)

  • steve

    re:#39

    feynman was a revolution of one, a real alternative.
    there really have been few in science like this.
    as with all information (re: the feynman lectures, landau, the manual that tells you how best to cook chicken in a microwave), aren’t we looking to digest all perspectives to perhaps create new innovative ideas and direction?
    and not follow in blind faith.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    The bongos- maybe with his children: Carl or Michelle or with his friend Ralph Leighton ?

  • Paul Valletta

    Sean, how about digging up a photo of feynman sitting at his desk for verification?..not doubting you claim, but I m sure “youre not joking” about Mr Feynman’s desk Mr Carrol! ;)

    Really it would be cool?..although your mile wide grin says a lot :)

  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~eal48 Eugene

    That’s really awesome.

  • Uncle Enzo

    Just sell the desk on ebay and give the money to the poor and use some of it to buy a desk of your own. I’m sure there are lots of Feynman fanatics (as these comments have shown) who are willing to pay big bucks for the desk. That’ll allow you to focus more on physics and you won’t ever be distracted with the thought, “Wow. I’m doing physics on the same desk that Feynman used.” and it’s a good deed too.

  • raj

    Jim Harrison on Sep 26th, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    I’m interested in what physicists think of Feynman’s lectures. My impression is that the books never worked very well as textbooks, in part because, despite their rather modest math level, they attempted to convey the meaning of physical ideas, i.e. they were too ambitious.

    This is true. The Feynman lecture books would have worked well as texts for instruction in advanced physics, but not for introductory instruction. Start with Halliday & Resnick (which I did in the late 1960s) and then continue with the Feynman books (which I also did) for advanced students.

    That said, it should be appreciated that the most interesting PBS Nova program ever broadcast was the one with Feynman. They edited out all of the questions from the interviewer and just had his responses. What was interesting is that Feynman’s responses made physics seem so easy. Which, quite frankly, it is–it is the physicists and (especially) the mathematicians that make physics seem so difficult.

  • Elliot

    The Feynman Lectures were the text for freshman physics at CalTech. One of the authors Robert Leighton, who wrote the companion problem book probably has not recieved enough credit for his contribution.

    I’ve already told the story before about the night he tried to steal my date at an undergrad mixer.

    Elliot

  • http://impropaganda.blogspot.com Suz

    “The Feynman Lectures were the text for freshman physics at CalTech. ”

    Um, it’s “Caltech.” Don’t ask why. Even though it’s an abstraction of “California Institute of Technology,” most Techers get annoyed if you spell it “CalTech” or “Cal Tech” or “ITT Tech” or “Cal Poly.”

    Anyway, to Sean, I didn’t know you were there now! Have fun; I have fond memories of the place and I liked that everyone there LIKES SCIENCE. Not like MIT, where people do it for the glory and stardom. Or maybe this is just a difference in an undergrad versus grad student lens.

  • http://stochastix.wordpress.com rod.

    Sean,

    Thanks for the info! I was a SURF student at Caltech in summer 2005, and I remember walking around campus wondering in which office Feynman had worked. At first I thought his office was in the Norman Bridge Lab, they I found it was at Lauritsen, but I didn’t know the exact office until now. So, thanks for answering a question that was left unanswered for way too long! :-)

    And of course, have fun working at Feynman’s desk!

  • Pingback: Who got Feynman’s office? « Perfectly Reasonable Deviations

  • Pingback: the guy by the door … » Blog Archive » Welcome back, Witten!

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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