Richard Feynman: Life, the universe and everything


Flowers, music, strip clubs…Richard Feynman's scientific curiosity knew no bounds. Christopher Riley pays tribute to an eccentric genius

In these days of frivolous entertainments and frayed attention spans, the people who become famous are not necessarily the brightest stars. One of the biggest hits on YouTube, after all, is a video of a French bulldog who can’t roll over. But in amongst all the skateboarding cats and laughing babies, a new animated video, featuring the words of a dead theoretical physicist, has gone viral. In the film, created from an original documentary made for the BBC back in the early Eighties, the late Nobel Prize-winning professor, Richard Feynman, can be heard extolling the wonders of science contained within a simple flower.

There is “beauty”, he says, not only in the flower’s appearance but also in an appreciation of its inner workings, and how it has evolved the right colours to attract insects to pollinate it. Those observations, he continues, raise further questions about the insects themselves and their perception of the world. “The science,” he concludes, “only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower.” This interview was first recorded by the BBC producer Christopher Sykes, back in 1981 for an episode of Horizon called “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”. When it was broadcast the following year the programme was a surprise hit, with the audience beguiled by the silver-haired professor chatting to them about his life and his philosophy of science.

Now, thanks to the web, Richard Feynman’s unique talents – not just as a brilliant physicist, but as an inspiring communicator – are being rediscovered by a whole new audience. As well as the flower video, which, to date, has been watched nearly a quarter of a million times, YouTube is full of other clips paying homage to Feynman’s ground-breaking theories, pithy quips and eventful personal life.

The work he did in his late twenties at Cornell University, in New York state, put the finishing touches to a theory which remains the most successful law of nature yet discovered. But, as I found while making a new documentary about him for the BBC, his curiosity knew no bounds, and his passion for explaining his scientific view of the world was highly contagious. Getting to glimpse his genius through those who loved him, lived and worked with him, I grew to regret never having met him; to share first-hand what so many others described as their “time with Feynman”.

Written By: Christopher Riley
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  1. For people in the UK: “The Fantastic Mr Feynman”, BBC2, Sunday May 12, 21:30. A profile of him, preceded by a repeat of “Challenger”, a drama about his work on the Challenger disaster.

  2. I never tire of listening to Feynman, I must have watched the Horizon interview 20 times. I know, i should get out more!

  3. In reply to #2 by Eamonn Shute:

    For people in the UK: “The Fantastic Mr Feynman”, BBC2, Sunday May 12, 21:30. A profile of him, preceded by a repeat of “Challenger”, a drama about his work on the Challenger disaster.

    Ooo, thanks for that!

  4. The one thing I most want the general public to learn from Feynman is that science is a method to keep us from fooling ourselves.

  5. I hadn’t seen this video version before. Without dilated lacrimal ducts be prepared to spill some lysozymes. Oh, you’re an artist you say? You may shed a tear.


  6. yeah I regret never having met Beethoven. I’m a musician and the great B was my inspiration for many years. Know what you mean there …

  7. What I like about Feynman was his obvious sense of humour, plus his profound understanding of nature. None of your dry as dust “I’m better than you” attitude. The man was enthusiastic about his work and it showed. He wanted us all to “get it” too.

    As Quine has alluded to Feynman’s attitude towards reality, nature cannot be fooled, but the easiest person to fool is yourself. So simple yet so profound.

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