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Life at CalTech with Feynman and Gell-Man was never boring. Stories of their exploits abounded —many of Feynman’s now preserved for posterity by his friend Ralph Leighton in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! There were many other stories. A friend told me of the time he was about to enter a lecture class and Gell-Man arrived at the door to give the class. My friend was about to oper the door but was stopped by Murray saying: “Wait!” There was a storm of lightning, Gell-Man said “Now!”, and entered the class accompanied by a duly impressive peal of thunder.
Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann
It was during this time at CalTech that Feynman gave his celebrated lecture in the Beckmon Auditorium on ‘Deciphering Mayan Hieroglyphics’. Feynman’s account of his honeymoon in Mexico with his second wife Mary Lou, and his eﬀorts to decipher the Dresden Codex is contained in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! The lecture itself was a typical Feynman tour de force. The story illustrates perfectly Feynman’s approach to tackling a new subject. Rather than look at a translation of the Codex, Feynman made believe he was the ﬁrst to get hold of it. Struggling with the Mayan bars and dots in the tables, he ﬁgured out that a bar equalled ﬁve dots and found the symbol for zero. The bars and dots carried at twenty the ﬁrst time but at eighteen the secont time, giving a cycle of 360. The number 584 was prominent in one place and was made up for periods of 236, 90, 250 and 8. Another prominent number was 2920 or 584 × 5 and close by there were tables of multiples of 2920 up to 13 × 2920. Here Feynman says he did the equivalent of looking in the back of the book. He scoured the astronomy library to ﬁnd something associated with the number 584 and found out that 583.92 days is the period of Venus as it appears from the Earth. The numbers 236, 90, 250 and 8 were then connected with the diﬀerent phases of Venus. There was also another table that had periods of 11, 959 in the Codex which Feytnman ﬁgured out were to be used for predicting lunar eclipses. With a typical downto-earth analogy, Feynman likened the Mayan’s fascination with such ‘magic numbers to our childish delight in watchingthe odometer of a car pass 10000, 20000, 30000 miles and so on. As Feynman says, “Murray Gell-Mann countered in the following weeks by giving a beautiful set of six lectures concerning the linguistic relations of all the languages of the world”. For these lectures, Murray used to arrive clutching armfulls of books and proceed to tell his audience about the classiﬁcation of languages into ‘superfamilies’ with a common origin. He was always fond of drawinf attention to the similarities between English and German 1
and, for example, delighted in calling George ‘Zweig’, George ‘Twig’. I still have some notes of his lectures —with examples from Northern, the Afro-Asiatic, the Indo-Paciﬁc, the Niger-Kardofanian, the Nilo-Saharian Superfamilies amongst others. Even though it seemed a bit strange for a professional particle physicists to be attending lectures on comparative linguistics, life at CalTech was always interesting! I have always suspected that Feynman’s account of his time with his father in the Catskills described in What Do You Care What Other People Think?, the second volume of anecdotes produced with Ralph Leighton, was partly directed at Gell-Mann’s passion for languages and names. In the story, Feynmann’s father says “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re ﬁnished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird”. Feynman credits his “knowing very early on diﬀerence between knowing the name of something and knowing something” to these experiences with his father.
In 1967 the Los Angeles Times Science editor wrote: “A lecture by Dr. Feynman is a rare treat indeed. For humor and drama, suspense and interest it often rivals Broodway stage plays. And above all, it crackles with clarity. If physics is the underlying ‘melody’ of science, then Dr. Feynman is its most lucid troubador.” In the same article,. the author, Irving Bengelsdorf, sums up the essence of Feynman’s approach: “No matter how diﬃcult the subject —from gravity through quantum mechanics to relativity— the words are sharp and clears. No stuﬀed shirt phrases, no ‘snow jobs’, no ofuscation.” A New York Times article in the same year said that Feynman “uses hand gestures and intonations the way Billy Rose used beautiful women on stage, specularly but with grace.”