In Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999) is the transcript of an interview conducted under the auspices of the AAAS, in which Feynman recalls his very first formal lecture. As an undergrad working with John Wheeler the pair had formulated a new theory of how light works, and it was considered interesting enough to warrant a seminar.
Eugene Wigner, who had suggested the seminar, felt the theory was sufficiently important to appeal to various luminaries of physical science, and duly sent special invitations to Wolfgang Pauli, John von Neumann (whom Feynman calls ‘the world’s greatest mathematician’), astronomer Henry Norris Russell, and Albert Einstein, who lived nearby.
Feynman, then aged 24, was understandably daunted, but he reports the situation with characteristic humour:
I must have turned absolutely white or something because [Wigner] said to me, “Now don’t get nervous about it, don’t be worried about it. First of all, if Professor Russell falls asleep, don’t feel bad, because he always falls asleep at lectures. When Professor Pauli nods as you go along, don’t feel good, because he always nods, he has palsy,” and so on.
Feynman was now calmer but still apprehensive. As the lecture approached he was shaking with fright until he began talking about the ideas, at which point everything went smoothly: ‘If I’m talking physics . . ., I think only about physics, I don’t worry where I am; I don’t worry about anything.’
Then came question time, and Wolfgang Pauli – a true giant in the field of physics – was immediately sceptical:
Professor Pauli stood up – he was sitting next to Professor Einstein. He said, “I do not think this theory can be right because of this and this and that and the other thing and so forth, don’t you agree, Professor Einstein?” Einstein said, “No-o-o-o,” and that was the nicest no I ever heard.
While I love the idea of having a favourite no, I can’t think what mine might be. People would probably find it easier to select the nicest yes they’ve ever heard. If you’d like to share any of your favourite or most memorable yeses or noes, please do.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out also featured in a bookmash here last year, while an earlier post reported a couple of amusing items from Feynman’s collected letters. Feynman fans might also enjoy the excerpts at my Tumblr on his attitude to doubt and uncertainty and his reaction to a malfunctioning tape recorder.