Richard Feynman Needs His Orange Juice

By Sean Carroll | March 5, 2008 12:14 am

And he will inform you of this desire … in song!

Via Cynical-C.

  • Yahoo

    Raising the infliction of vicarious embarrassment to an art form.

    You can rupture my eardrums now, thanks.

  • Jacob

    Is that Ralph Leighton?

  • Zeno

    Yes, that’s Ralph Leighton, all right (presuming you mean the younger guy on the left).

  • Wayne

    And that is why Feynman was the greatest physical mind of our time. Never mind the physics stuff, what a badass. I couldn’t help but drum along at my desk with a big stupid grin on my face.

    Secret of genius? Let go. Let it all go for the orange juice… and wile out drumming a sick beat.


  • Ali

    That was wonderful. I think it actually brought tears to my eyes.

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  • Odani of Logistics

    Just imagine the advances in physics that might have been made had he been provided the OJ he so desperately needed.

  • andyo

    Thank you so much! I have become more of a fan of RF the person than RF the physicist lately (mostly because I understand none of it), after reading his books of personal stories. This was excellent. By the way, Sean I just saw your talk at the Beyond Belief II conference… you got another faithful reader (though I occasionally browsed around anyway). It also was excellent.

  • Bernhard

    Inspired by the video, I found the Ralph Leighton’s webstore (, where one can download the whole album “Safecracker Suite: Drumming and Storytelling by Richard Feynman” for a small fee. Very nice and special!

  • Yahoo

    My favorite Feynman story is connected with his behavior in seminars. As is well known, he was intensely obnoxious and rude to virtually all speakers; it was his way of venting over the fact that he had not made any important contributions for many years. However, in what should be a warning for all those pathetic losers who go out of their way to be nasty at seminars, Feynman eventually had his comeuppance, as related here
    by someone who was there:

    “But there was someone who gave Feynman a taste of his own medicine. The Norwegian-American physicist Ivar Giaever once suffered through a lecture with Feynman. Two years later, he came back to Caltech to give another lecture. This time, however, Giaever not only answered Feynman to the point, but made him look stupid. Obviously, he had done a good job of preparing ahead, deliberately slipping in remarks to provoke Feynman – who walked straight into his trap. Everyone in the lecture hall could feel how stunned Feynman was. ”

    How I wish I could have been there! It would be a partial recompense for the hours I wasted reading his sophomoric books and suffering through the obviously mendacious stories he and his groupies told about his sex life.

  • milkshake

    my impression is that even as self-centered, attention-basking Feynman was, it was not too obnoxious because he was funny and subversive. I think pomposity set him off. Whenever there was an opportunity to stage a nutty mischief he did not hesitate.

  • string theorist

    Dear yahoo,

    People are people, including great physicists. Its just that good (theoretical) physicists are (usually) impervious to the usual things that trigger pettiness in “normal” people. They get their validation not from cars or money, but from feeling smarter than their peers, having their work cited by others, recognized for their contributions, etc.

    So yes, Feynman was quite possibly as petty as anybody else about the things that TRULY mattered to him.

    That said, what is your point? (You have two posts hating on Feynman in this thread.) That Feynman should not get the attention he gets? Why not? He *was* a stellar physicist, he also *was* a great expositor of science, and he *was* also a colorful character. Besides, he was funny. If we were to be penalized for our pettiness, we would have to just collectively give up as a species. Its what we do DESPITE our pettiness and attention-whoring that matters. Why should our heroes be flawless? Isn’t it better to be inspired by another person’s greatness than to use their pettiness as an excuse for staying mediocre? Because there will _always_ be pettiness.

    Its YOUR mistake that you imagined Fenyman to be larger than life when you “wasted [hours] reading his sophomoric books”. I am always puzzled by this white-to-black switch that people have when they realize their heroes were not truly superhuman. I mean, wasn’t that obvious from the start?

    string theorist

  • dr. dave

    wow… i haven’t seen that clip in YEARS.

    i’m feeling a little thirsty now… i wonder if we have any orange juice…?

  • Analyzer

    It would be a partial recompense for the hours I wasted reading his sophomoric books

    I find it interesting that you used the plural, “books.” Once the first sophomoric book disgusted you, why did you read the second?

  • Sean

    I was as much into Feynman idolatry as the next aspiring physicist, but eventually I abandoned it as I learned more about the guy. He was a human being like the rest of us, and idolatry is usually not a good stance toward anybody. He had his flaws when it came to personal relations and a certain form of selfishness. He was also a genius physicist and a terrific explainer and, more than one person has testified, the most charismatic person you would ever meet. It’s possible for someone to be admired for their good qualities even when we understand their less good ones.

    Physicists tend to go overboard with their Feynman worship, especially here at Caltech. But this is a great clip of a guy having fun, just enjoy it.

  • Dr.Stuart Savory

    We used Feynman’s text books when I was reading physics for my first degree.
    That was back in the early 1960s. Coincidentally, he also motivated me to learn some lockpicking skills, opening doors etc etc.;-)
    Never could drum like that though :-(

  • Yahoo

    String theorist said: “That Feynman should not get the attention he gets? Why not? He *was* a stellar physicist, he also *was* a great expositor of science, and he *was* also a colorful character.”

    So was Schroedinger; in fact, S outranks Feynman on all those counts. Why don’t we see pimply MIT undergrads worshipping him? The Feynman cult enshrines all of the worst things about academic life as a physicist: in particular the notion that you can get away with being an obnoxious bully by hiding behind the claim that you are just debunking “pompousness”. In reality, of course, Feynman was himself a pompous ass of the first order, and a first-class phony to boot: witness all that nauseating crap about “not really wanting” the Nobel.

    Recently I was at a conference. After a nice talk by a young person, I saw the speaker being accosted by a famous physicist who introduced himself by saying, “You don’t really *believe* all that crap do you?” Charming. And you can bet that he privately considers himself a Feynmannian exploder of pomposity, despite himself giving a self-congratulatory talk about the [to everyone else imperceptible] successes of his ancient hobby-horse. In short: if young people really need idols [why, exactly?] then let them choose someone who set a reasonably civilized example, one that might restrain rather than encourage the inner Feynman. [No, I don’t think anyone should emulate Schroedinger’s sex life either, though at least *he* didn’t concoct stories, carefully constructed and broadcast with the intention that they should be repeated, about his adventures in that direction.]

  • String Theorist

    Dear yahoo, I am not contesting your claim that Feynman was, especially later in his life ..ummm… an insecure biaatch. My point was that there are other things one could focus on about him. The Feynman cult is bad not because of “Feynman”, but because of “cult”.

    Schroedinger could never appeal to the public imagination like Feynman did, even they both were great as physicists. You seem upset by that asymmetry. Me, I am okay with it and don’t quite understand what is bothering you so much.

    Also, I am not sure how much I agree with the idea of finding a “civilized example, one that might restrain rather than encourage the inner Feynman”. First off, there is no human that does not have a few *serious* flaws when under the microscope. Good and bad cut not *between* individuals, but *through* them. So its better to be the not-so-blind follower of many, than to be the blind follower of one.

    Secondly, I do think that a certain irreverence (which is what the myth of Feynman symbolizes to many – he is certainly not respected for being obnoxious) is precisely what one needs in modern academia. Imagine a scenario where the young person in your story was NOT thrown off by the comment, and could come back with “No, sir, not at all! Only *some* of that crap!”. Now wouldn’t that be a romantic ending? :)

    Bullies thrive on weakness. Eliminating weakness, by actively trying to eliminate the heirarchical structure of science, is empowerment. Eliminating the bully, which is what you are rooting for, is a much harder problem in a free society.


  • Elliot

    As an former undergrad at Caltech, I can attest that Feynman did not “concoct” those stories.


  • nano

    String theorist said: “That Feynman should not get the attention he gets? Why not? He *was* a stellar physicist, he also *was* a great expositor of science, and he *was* also a colorful character.”

    So was Schroedinger; in fact, S outranks Feynman on all those counts.

    On “all” of those counts? Specifically the “great expositor of science” part? I do think (quoting Schwinger) Feynman was indeed the premier intuitionist of the time.

    As string theorist noted, the wrong part of “feynman idolatory” is the idolatory part. Everyone has a different style of doing physics and a different personality: contrast Feynman with Witten or Maldacena.

  • QuantumSingularity

    Witten and Maldacena are string theorists, not physicists ^^

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  • Yahoo

    String theorist said:

    Schroedinger could never appeal to the public imagination like Feynman did, even they both were great as physicists. You seem upset by that asymmetry. Me, I am okay with it and don’t quite understand what is bothering you so much.

    What is bothering me is that the asymmetry is based not on physics or expository talent but on personality. I fear that you underestimate F’s influence as an *example*: I see mini-Feynmans, just like him with one small exception [ absence of talent], all over the place. But I take your other points; I’m not claiming that F was unique [cf Gell-Mann].

    Elliot: sorry, the stories as I hear them bear an uncanny resemblance to the fantasy world of the canonical sex-starved male undergrad at MIT or Caltech. Furthermore, I have met an amazing number of obscure elderly professors who claim to have accompanied Feynman in his campaigns of conquest; to the degree, indeed, that Feynman’s pub crawls must have resembled a Viking raid, with a cast of thousands, if all of these reminiscences are true. Which they obviously ain’t.

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  • Elliot


    Since I was there and you weren’t I guess I you’re just going to have to trust me on this one.


  • Ben

    Overbearing scientists who behave badly toward junior people do it because they are jerks who haven’t learned better or are insecure. Not because they are being Feynmanesque. Blaming it all on Feynman relieves these people of responsibility for their own actions. Don’t do that.

  • Michael A. Gottlieb


    I challenge you to name a verifiable source that Feynman “was intensely obnoxious and rude to virtually all speakers.” (In fact, Feynman did not suffer arrogant fools lightly, but most seminar speakers, at least at Caltech, are not of that ilk.)

    Regarding The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which you refer to as “sophomoric” (What do you expect? It was written for freshmen and sophomores.): The Feynman Lectures on Physics is the most popular physics textbook ever written; still in print after 45 years, it has been translated into over a dozen languages, and has sold many millions of copies around the world. I can well believe that YOUR time was “wasted” reading The Feynman Lectures, but that is not a reflection on the book.

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  • Simon DeDeo

    I think there are two Feynmans. There is the Feynman of the lectures and the Feynman of the autobiographies.

    The latter Feynman I think wears very poorly, although it does provide a handy social-behavior model for the men — let’s be honest — who were emotionally stunted in high school (I was one.) Sort of one part Thoreau, one part (highly torqued) Ayn Rand really.

    But the former Feynman’s awesomeness I think is unassailable? I read a paper of his on superfluidity many years later in graduate school — looking for insight on a related issue — and I was really amazed at how he carried over the insouciance of his lectures into more formal material.

  • Farhat

    What’s the thing with Yahoo’s obsession with Feynman’s sex life here? Its like someone deviates one iota from the guilt-filled sex path laid down by the God from above and suddenly you have no value whatsoever. Yea, he liked sex with many partners and got to have it. Get over it.

  • Dany

    Yahoo:” You can rupture my eardrums now”

    Me too. I perceive it as kaka-phonia. So what?

    Yahoo:” Feynman eventually had his comeuppance, as related here by someone who was there”

    You blame R.P.Feynman obnoxious and rude but you in addition are arrogant ignorant since that “someone” is Y.Ne’eman whose contribution in physics even more substantial that that of R.P.Feynman. And he was also piece of cake.

    Regards, Dany.

  • String Theorist

    Feynman *was* rude and obnoxious. I have heard that from too many senior people that I respect, for it to be not true. People who defend him on that and attack yahoo are not getting the point.

    Sorry to be so melodramatic, but dammit, I can handle the flames. :)


  • Dany

    String Theorist:” People who defend him on that and attack yahoo are not getting the point.”

    I consider all that discussion initiated by Yahoo outrageous. For me R.P.Feynman is real hero (in images used in my country): he put his mind and his body on the thorny barrier to let the others pass. Tragically, the only contribution which is invariant under time translations he refused to publish.

    I hope I am wrong.

    Regards, Dany.

  • Elliot

    I love it (via the ysfine link above)

    “Feynman was the Elvis Presley of Physics”


  • Chris Oakley

    If you have to go through that palaver just to order orange juice, then how long would it take you to order a full breakfast? I know it’s too late now, but Feynman should have gone to the MacDonalds or Starbucks in Oxford or Cambridge, which I frequent, where the task could be accomplished in a fraction of the time.

  • Dany

    I have no idea what was Yuval’s association but in our country A. Einstein is a very popular singer.

    Regards, Dany.

  • hey

    Dear Chris Oakley, I took a look at your website, and it seems like you are still using the dark ages view of renormalization, a la Feynman and Schwinger!! Ever since Wilson, we do understand where quantum field theory fits in.

    Maybe you should read up on effective field theories?? Nobody really thinks quantum field theory IS the fundamental theory these days (even though sometimes it can be). Just that at suficiently low energies, everything LOOKS like a quantum field theory. So the issues about its fundamental-ness that you raise -which incidentally are very good questions that took a long time for humans to figure out- are not a problem anymore.

    Just thought I will point it out in case you are actively thinking about these things…

  • Chris Oakley

    Hi hey,

    1. Why don’t you identify yourself?

    2. You are right – by and large people now longer worry about the fact that they are unable to derive their QFT calculational tools from first principles. Is that their problem or mine?

  • Chris Oakley

    Sorry, point 2 should read

    2. You are right – by and large, people now no longer worry about the fact that they are unable to derive their QFT calculational tools from first principles. Is that their problem or mine?

  • hey

    > 1. Why don’t you identify yourself?

    Because the world is out to get me? Because I don’t want the professors to know that I am wasting time on blogs when THEY are wasting time on blogs? Because my real name is longer to type than “hey”? Because I am a closet string theorist? (We are the persecuted underdogs these days, you know?)

    There are all these excellent reasons, but the only point relevant to this conversation is WHAT was said, not WHO said it. Content, over cosmetics.

    > 2. You are right – by and large, people now no longer worry about the fact that they are unable
    > to derive their QFT calculational tools from first principles. Is that their problem or mine?

    Yours. People stopped worrying about it BECAUSE they understood what renormalization was about. So they are in fact able to derive “QFT calculational tools from first priciples”. You are trying to see quantum field theory like Feynman and company did. That is, without a cut-off. So when the cutoff is forced on you by the infinities, it upsets you. And indeed there, you have reason to be upset. The essential (and a posteriori extremeley natural) insight of Wilson was that QFT should be understood with a cutoff because we cannot pretend to understand short distance physics. What I am saying is that QFT is only an effective description at low energies and therefore, you are applying it outside its regime of validity when you are trying to extrapolate it to extremely high energies and complaining about infinities.

    But I think there is one context in which your desire for a QFT without a cutoff, might have some validity. This is in the context of QCD (or any theory with UV fixed point), because QCD even though a QFT is well-defined as a theory at all scales! But still we do need a cutoff (to be differentiated from the scale at which the theory is defined) to handle UV divergences, for example in perturbative QCD. So one might ask why we need to do this since QCD should work at all scales. My answer would be that the Wilsonian path integral for QCD should be thought of as given to us from the deep UV, and the “giving” has to be thought of as happening at some scale. Physically speaking, the only thing that we have any right to talk about from our low-energy misery is the effective action with degrees of freedom corresponding to short distance physics ALREADY integrated out. The scale at which this integrating out happens is the UV cutoff of the theory.

    In any event, it was nice talking to you. Perhaps you are too invested in your pet theories to change your mind, cut your losses etc., but who knows? Perhaps you are!

  • hey

    The last sentence of my previous message should read:

    Perhaps you are not!

  • Chris Oakley

    Sorry, but I have got rather tired of arguing with anonymous people on blogs. Identify yourself, and I will try to answer your points. Otherwise, forget it.

  • hey

    No, there was nothing you needed to answer. I already got your points from your website.

    You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.

    Good luck!

  • Dany

    Hey:”No, there was nothing you needed to answer. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.”

    Chris, let him die quietly, if he want to.

    Regards, Dany.

  • hey

    Dany, yes, democracy is what decides facts. So all it takes for you and Chris is to get some other dudes to join in your “QFT is nonsense” cult and you can start your own research institute. I knew a kid in my college who was convinced that calculus is wrong because he was confused by infinitesimals. Maybe you should appoint him as the director.

    What I find hilarious is the kind of excuses that people use when confronted with the ridiculousness of their claims. Please tell me, how exactly is my anonymity relevant to my arguments? Except to give Chris an easy escape path? I meant what I said: I want to stay anonymous because I do not want my professors to think that I am wasting my time fighting crackpots on the internet.

    Even though, clearly, thats precisely what I am doing right now.

    The jury should please note that this is the first time in the entire conversation that I was being a teeeeeny bit offensive, despite the abject silliness of Chris Oakley’s claims about QFT. I think I have a right to be a bit frustrated.

    I will try to resist posting further: I started this off-topic blather, and its fair that I should take the initiative to end it.

  • Chris Oakley


    “hey” is saying not that I am wrong – I seriously doubt that he has studied my papers anyway – he is just saying that I am uncool. The peculiar arrogance of HEP theorists is that, to them, “uncool” and “wrong” are are just different ways of saying the same thing. So maybe he has a future in the subject.

    “Effective” field theory – that he thinks I know nothing about – makes no claims about being axiomatic. As he points out, it is just a ragbag of suppositions concerning scaling behaviour that helps one obtain ad hoc models accurate only within carefully-defined limits, and, as such, is very unsatisfying state of the physics art. It will eventually die in the same way, and for the same reasons that Bohr’s model of the single-electron atom died. But by applying labels like “crackpot” (so far only received from Lubos Motl – and discounted accordingly) to someone who is trying to find something better is just pathetic.

  • Dany


    Bohr’s model died when something better was suggested. He is just a kid. Let him study physics in his own way. I agree with him that your requirement for identification is irrelevant. Sadly, he is already dude but don’t understand that.

    Regards, Dany.

    P.S. I remember studying your papers already at 80th.

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  • r.b.

    I never met Feynman so I don’t know what he was like in person or as a person. But I do admire his physics and enjoy reading his books. What I and I believe many other people find inspirational about him is 1) a sense of life as an adventure, with all sorts of unexpected things possible and waiting to be enjoyed: 2) a direct, honest approach to life, based on a willingness to admit that there are a lot of things we don’t know and may never know, but we’re not going to pretend that we do know just to feel good or important.

    As far as him being obnoxious or arrogant, I don’t think that can be the whole story. His recently published correspondence reveals quite an empathic, warm person sensitive to the feelings of other people and ready to assist when he could. I don’t think you can easily “fake” your correspondence over a period of many years.


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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] .


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