One of the undisputed geniuses in the world of 20th-century physics was theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, and science enthusiasts will be delighted to learn that Feynman’s incandescent rough drafts of his thoughts and ideas headed to auction on Friday at Sotheby’s in New York; the Feynman Nobel Prize, papers and books fetched $3.8 million as part of a the auction house’s History of Science & Technology auction, which totaled $4.9 million, all told.
As will be well-known to many people, Richard Feynman was a great popularizer of physics, and wrote entertaining and informative classics like Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, and What Do You Care What Other People Think? As the New York Times reminds us, Feynman also played a crucial role in determining what had caused the devastating loss of the space shuttle Challenger.
In 1965, Richard Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for “fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles.” Take note that the citation and medal for this Nobel Prize also made its way to auction at Sotheby’s to complement Feynman’s drafts.
The many and varied writings of Feynman that were sold will surely soothe many would-be physicists who feel that they are not quite in the same league, by showing that while he was no doubt brilliant, Feynman was not one to come up with perfect solutions to problems at the drop of a hat, as Sotheby’s specialist Cassandra Hatton has pointed out.
“We tend to have this idea of genius being someone who just sprung out of the womb and had these magical capabilities. And Feynman himself denied that fact. He always said, ‘Guys, there’s nothing. There’s no magic here. I’m just somebody who’s very interested and worked very hard and was very curious.'”
"They show us the little mistakes and the things he crossed out and where he changed his mind and what he decided to refine.” — Cassandra Hatton, Sotheby's, about the rough drafts of Richard Feynman's papers. https://t.co/krp97s0s9Y
— NYT Science (@NYTScience) December 1, 2018
After the outbreak of World War II, Feynman was recruited for The Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in California to help develop an atomic bomb. During development, he was well-known for the practical jokes he pulled on fellow scientists, which included one occasion where he was able to successfully pick a lock and break into the cabinet of fellow nuclear physicist Frederic de Hoffmann.
After gaining access to Hoffmann’s private space, Feynman then left a series of mysterious notes inside, which so thoroughly frightened Hoffmann and others that they were seriously worried that someone had stolen knowledge about atomic bombs. Not content with merely building a bomb and playing pranks on his colleagues, Richard Feynman was also known to disappear from time to time into the desert to play his beloved bongo drums.
Before the Feynman’s death in 1988, the physicist had planned to donate a huge amount of his research and papers to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he spent a large amount of time teaching. However, his family held onto some of his drafts, and these are what headed to auction at Sotheby’s.
“I think they’re more important because they let us see how he got from A to Z. They show us the steps. They show us the little mistakes and the things he crossed out and where he changed his mind and what he decided to refine,” Hatton explained.
If you cannot explain something in simple terms, you don't understand it.
—Professor Richard Feynman pic.twitter.com/y4NgzV7UHP
— Roberto Alonso González Lezcano (@robertoglezcano) November 29, 2018
Along with Feynman’s writings, books belonging to the physicist were also up for auction, including a complex book written by physicist Paul Dirac, which Feynman had fun with by writing inside, “Analyze this some day.” And to make things really interesting, a tambourine that Feynman used to play in a samba band also went up for sale, reinforcing the notion that Feynman was an avid lover of music, who took pleasure in playing the bongo drums and tambourine.
Now that Richard Feynman’s papers and other prized possessions have been sold at auction at Sotheby’s, it is very possible the new owners of these cherished objects may share some of the physicist’s written insights with the world.