Home Articles Facts Games Poems & Quotes
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

This is an edited transcript of an interview with Richard Feynman. He talks openly about how he and his fellow atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project could drink and revel in the success of the terrible weapon they had created while on the other side of the world in Hiroshima thousands of their fellow human beings were dead or dying from it; and why Feynman could just as well have gotten along without a Nobel Prize.

Invitation to the Bomb

While working on his PhD thesis, Feynman was asked to join the project to develop the atomic bomb.

It was a completely different kind of thing. It would mean that I would have to stop the research in what I was doing, which is my life’s desire, to take time off to do this, which I felt I should do in order to protect civilization. Okay? So that was what I had to debate with myself. My first reaction was, well, I didn’t want to get interrupted in my normal work to do this odd job. There was also the problem, of course, of any moral thing involving war. I wouldn’t have much to do with that, but it kinda scared me when I realized what the weapon would be, and that since it might be possible, it must be possible. There was nothing that I knew that indicated that if we could do it they couldn’t do it, and therefore it was very important to try to cooperate.

(In early 1943 Feynman joined Oppenheimer’s team at Los Alamos).

Mushroom Cloud
US Army

An image that changed the world - the Mushroom Cloud over Hiroshima

With regard to moral questions, I do have something I would like to say about it. The original reason to start the project, which was that the Germans were a danger, started me off on a process of action which was to try to develop this first system at Princeton and then at Los Alamos, to try to make the bomb work. All kinds of attempts were made to redesign it to make it a worse bomb and so on. But what I did, - immorally I would say – was to not remember the reason that I said I was doing it, so that when the reason changed, because Germany was defeated, not the singlest thought came to my mind at all about that, that that, meant now I would have to reconsider why I am continuing to do this. I simply didn’t think, okay?

Success and Suffering

On 6 August 1945 the atomic bomb was exploded over Hiroshima.


US Airforce

The City of Hiroshima before and after the bomb - the rings are at 1000ft intervals from the hypocenter

The only reaction that I remember – perhaps I was blinded by my own reaction – was a very considerable elation and excitement, and there were parties and people got drunk and it would make a tremendously interesting contrast, what was going on in Los Alamos at the same time as what was going on in Hiroshima. I was involved with this happy thing and also drinking and drunk and playing drums sitting on the hood of –the bonnet of-a Jeep and playing drums with excitement running all over Los Alamos at the same time as people were dying and struggling in Hiroshima.

I had a very strong reaction after the war of a peculiar nature-it may be just from the bomb itself and it may be for other psychological reasons, I’d just lost my wife or something, but I remember being in New York with my mother in a restaurant, immediately after Hiroshima and thinking about New York, and I knew how big the bomb in Hiroshima was, how big an area it covered and so on, and I realized from where we were-I don’t know, 59th Street-that to drop one on 34th Street, it would spread all the way out here and all these people would be killed and all the things would be killed and there wasn’t only one bomb available, but it was easy to continue to make them, and therefore that things were sort of doomed because already it happened to me-very early, earlier than to others who were more optimistic-that international relations and the way people were behaving were no different than they had ever been before and that it was just going to go the same way as any other thing and I was sure that it was going, therefore, to be used very soon. So I felt very uncomfortable and thought, really believed , that it was silly: I would see people building a bridge and I would say ‘they don’t understand’. I really believed that it was senseless to make anything because it would be destroyed very soon anyway, but they didn’t understand that and I had this very strange view of any construction that I would see, I would always think how foolish they are trying to make something. So I was really in a kind of depressive condition.

Richard Feynman
Nobel Foundation

Richard Feynman

‘I Don’t Have To Be Good Because They Think I’m Going to Be Good’

After the war Feynman joined Hans Bethe, winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics at Cornell University. He turned down the offer of a job at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

They must have expected me to be wonderful to offer me a job like this and I wasn’t wonderful, and therefore realized a new principle, which was not that I’m not responsible for what other people think I am able to do; I don’t have to be good because they think I’m going to be good. And somehow or other I could relax about this, and I thought to myself, I haven’t done anything important and I’m never going to do anything important. But I used to enjoy physics and mathematical things and because I used to play with them it was very short order (that I) worked the things out for which I later won the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prize – Was It Worth It?

Feynman was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics.

What I essentially did – and also it was done independently by two other people, (Sinitiro) Tomanaga in Japan and (Julian) Schwinger – was to figure out how to control, how to analyze and discuss the original quantum theory of electricity and magnetism that had been written in 1928; how to interpret it so as to avoid the infinities, to make calculations for which has been done so far, so that quantum electrodynamics fits experiment in every detail where its applicable- not involving the nuclear forces, for instance-and it was the work that I did in 1947 to figure out how to do that, for which I won the Nobel Prize.

Nobel Prize Ceremony
Nobel Foundation

The Pomp and Circumstance of a Nobel Prize Ceremony

I don’t know anything about the Nobel Prize, I don’t understand what it’s all about or what’s worth what, but if the people in the Swedish Academy decide that x, y, or z wins the Nobel Prize then so be it. I won’t have anything to do with the Nobel Prize…it’s a pain in the….I don’t like honors. I appreciate it, and I know there’s a lot of physicists who use my work, I don’t need anything else, I don’t think there’s any sense to anything else. I don’t think that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize – I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it (my work) - those are the real things, the honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors, it bothers me, honors bother, honors is epaulettes, honors is uniforms. My papa bought me up this way. I can’t stand it, it hurts me.

Richard Feynman was one of the century’s most brilliant theoretical and original thinkers. Born in 1918 in Brooklyn, he received his PhD from Princeton in 1942. He taught at Cornell and the California Institute of Technology. In 1965 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum electrodynamics. Thank's to BBC TV Horizon: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1981) produced by Christopher Sykes.

Home   l  Biology   l  Physics   l  Planetary Science   l  Technology   l  Space

First Science 2014