Full transcript of physicist Leonard Susskind’s TEDx Talk on Richard Feynman at TEDxCaltech conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Leonard Susskind on Richard Feynman at TEDxCaltech
I can’t see the audience and I hate that. How many great grandparents are there in the audience? Damn it! I can’t see anything.
Okay. You’re probably wondering why I’m sitting and the answer is because I’m a great grandfather, not a good grandfather, great-grandfather. And as everybody knows great-grandparents get to do any damn thing they please, including following my own grandfather’s advice which was whenever you give a talk to a thousand people about Richard Feynman, sustain yourself.
This is an extremely slick operation and I’m not a slick man. So I don’t use these things.
I decided when I was asked to do this that what I really wanted to talk about was my friend, Richard Feynman. I was one of the fortunate few that really did get to know him and enjoyed his presence. And I’m going to tell you about the Richard Feynman that I knew. I’m sure there are people here who could tell you about the Richard Feynman they knew, and it would probably be a different Richard Feynman.
Richard Feynman was a very complex man. He was a man of many, many parts. He was, of course, foremost, a very, very, very great scientist. He was an actor. You saw him act. I also had the good fortune to be in those lectures, up in the balcony. They were fantastic. He was a philosopher. He was a drum player. He was a teacher par excellence.
Richard Feynman was also a showman, an enormous showman. He was brash, irreverent. He was full of macho, a kind of macho one-upmanship. He loved intellectual battle. He had a gargantuan ego. But the man had, somehow, a lot of room at the bottom. And what I mean by that is a lot of room, in my case — I can’t speak for anybody else, but in my case — a lot of room for another big ego. Well, not as big as his, but fairly big.
I always felt good with Dick Feynman. It was always fun to be with him. He always made me feel smart. How can somebody like that make you feel smart? Somehow he did. He made me feel smart. He made me feel he was smart. He made me feel we were both smart, and the two of us could solve any problem whatever. And in fact, we did sometimes do physics together. We never published a paper together, but we did have a lot of fun.
He loved to win, win these little macho games that we would sometimes play. And he didn’t only play them with me, but with all sorts of people. He would almost always win. But when he didn’t win, when he lost, he would laugh and seem to have just as much fun as if he had won.
I remember once he told me a story about a joke the students played on him. I think it was for his birthday — they took him for lunch to a sandwich place in Pasadena. It may still exist; I don’t know. Celebrity sandwiches was their thing. You could get a Marilyn Monroe sandwich. You could get a Humphrey Bogart sandwich. The students went there in advance, and they arranged that they’d all order Feynman sandwiches. One after another, they came in and ordered Feynman sandwiches. Feynman loved this story. He told me this story, and he was really happy and laughing.
When he finished the story, I said to him, “Dick, I wonder what would be the difference between a Feynman sandwich and a Susskind sandwich.” And without skipping a beat at all, he said, “Well, they’d be about the same. The only difference is a Susskind sandwich would have a lot more ham.” ‘Ham’ as in bad actor.
Well, I happened to have been very quick that day, and I said, “Yeah, but a lot less baloney.”
The truth of the matter is that a Feynman sandwich had a load of ham, but absolutely no baloney. What Feynman hated worse than anything else was intellectual pretense — phoniness, false sophistication, jargon. I remember sometime during the mid-’80s, Dick and I and Sidney Coleman would meet a couple of times up in San Francisco — at some very rich guy’s house — up in San Francisco for dinner. And the last time the rich guy invited us, he also invited a couple of philosophers. These guys were philosophers of mind. Their specialty was the philosophy of consciousness. And they were full of all kinds of jargon. I’m trying to remember the words — “monism,” “dualism,” categories all over the place. I didn’t know what those things meant, neither did Dick or neither did Sydney, for that matter. Sydney who was better educated than most of us.
And what did we talk about? Well, what do you talk about when you talk about minds? There’s one obvious thing to talk about: Can a machine become a mind? Can you build a machine that thinks like a human being that is conscious? We sat around and we talked about this — we of course never resolved it. But the trouble with the philosophers is that they were philosophizing when they should have been science-ophizing. It’s a scientific question, after all. And this was a very, very dangerous thing to do around Dick Feynman.
Feynman let them have it — both barrels, right between the eyes. It was brutal; it was funny — ooh, it was funny. But it was really brutal. He really popped their balloon. But the amazing thing was — Feynman had to leave a little early; he wasn’t feeling too well, so he left a little bit early. And Sidney and I were left there with the two philosophers. And the amazing thing is these guys were flying. They were so happy. They had met the great man; they had been instructed by the great man; they had an enormous amount of fun having their faces shoved in the mud … And it was something special. I realized there was something just extraordinary about Feynman, even when he did what he did. So yes, he did not like intellectual pretense.
Dick — he was my friend; I did call him Dick — Dick and I had a little bit of a rapport. I think it may have been a special rapport that he and I had. We liked each other; we liked the same kind of things. I also like the intellectual macho games. Sometimes I would win, mostly he would win, but we both enjoyed them. And Dick became convinced at some point that he and I had some kind of similarity of personality. I don’t think he was right. I think the only point of similarity between us is we both like to talk about ourselves. But he was convinced of this. And the man was incredibly curious. And he wanted to understand what it was and why it was that there was this funny connection.
And one day, we were walking. We were in France, we were in Les Houches. We were up in the mountains, 1976. And Feynman said to me, “Leonardo …” The reason he called me “Leonardo” is because we were in Europe, and he was practicing his French. And he said, “Leonardo, were you closer to your mother or to your father when you were a kid?”
And I said, “Well, my real hero was my father. He was a working man, had a fifth-grade education. He was a master mechanic, and he taught me how to use tools. He taught me all sorts of things about mechanical things. He even taught me the Pythagorean theorem. He didn’t call it the hypotenuse, he called it the shortcut distance.”
And Feynman’s eyes just opened up. He went off like a lightbulb. And he said that he had had basically exactly the same relationship with his father. In fact, he had been convinced at one time that to be a good physicist, it was very important to have had that kind of relationship with your father. I apologize for the sexist conversation here, but this is the way it really happened.