Serendipity prevented me from reviewing the Challenger documentary a few weeks ago. It was so good and we enjoyed it so much, if those are the right words to use for a programme about something as tragic as the Challenger explosion. But I ran out of time.
William Hurt was the perfect Richard Feynman, or so I thought until Sunday night when the documentary was shown again, followed by an hour about the real Feynman, featuring interviews with friends and family as well as Feynman himself.
I’m glad we saw William Hurt’s Feynman first. That way we knew both about his work to find the reason for the Challenger tragedy, and we knew what the ‘fake’ Feynman was like. A very fine man, and an ill man. After the triumph of finding out that NASA had covered up certain facts, we had to face Feynman’s illness and subsequent death.
But fine as the actor was, Feynman was far better at being him. I was sad to know he died 25 years ago, making it impossible to meet him. That’s not just my fondness for Nobel prize winners, but my general liking for brilliant minds talking. It never ceases to amaze me how much some people are able to think and understand when it comes to really tricky stuff.
One thing I learned on Sunday was that ‘everything’ is electromagnetism, which is a subject we have come into closer contact with than we’d like in recent months. Feynman came up with the term quantum physics (or so I believe), which is another familiar subject. Unintelligible, but familiar.
I take some comfort in the letter Feynman wrote to the mother of a student, telling her not to worry about science, because love was more important. I’ll go for love any day.
It seems a little unfair that such a clever man should be good at more than physics. He played the drums. He could draw fantastically well. He was interested in a great variety of things, while still finding time to be a person, to spend time with his children, the way his own father had spent time teaching him about the world.
Feynman now means so much more to me than the name on the covers of those books certain people leave lying around the house. I am tempted to try reading one, but suspect I might come to regret such an impulse. Maybe I could watch his talks on YouTube?
For anyone who missed The Fantastic Mr Feynman on television, here is the iPlayer version. I can’t recommend it enough. Do watch.
(Lovely to learn that his little sister Joan is an astrophysicist. I wouldn’t mind a programme about her. And the fact that they grew up in Far Rockaway was a fun coincidence for me. I’d been half wondering if it’s a fictional place. Seems not.)