In Search of Feynman's Van

Seven years after Richard Feynman died, I visited Caltech for the first time. One reason for the visit was to give a talk about the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics, which draws so strongly on Feynman's own unusual ideas about the nature of electromagnetic radiation, now more than half a century old. It was, to say the least, an unusual feeling to be talking not just from the spot where Feynman himself used to lecture, but about his own work. And when, during the question period at the end of the talk, the discussion moved on to QED, the dream-like quality of the occasion intensified -- an audience at Caltech, of all places, was asking me to explain QED to them!

But the main purpose of the visit was to fill in the background to the Feynman legend in preparation for writing a book, visiting the places where he used to work and meeting the people he used to work with. In the spring of 1995, after an unusually wet late winter, the Caltech campus seemed to be the ideal place for a scientist (or anyone else) to work. With temperatures in the 80s and a cloudless sky, the green open spaces of the campus, shaded by trees and decked with colourful flowerbeds, offered a calm environment highly conducive to gentle contemplation about the mysteries of the Universe. I was reminded of a visit to Larne, in South Wales, to the modest building where Dylan Thomas used to work, looking out over the spectacular views and thinking "if I'd lived here, even I might have become a poet"; I may not be much of a physicist, but the atmosphere at Caltech makes you think "if I worked here, even I might have one or two good ideas". And then you think about the people who have worked there, including Feynman himself, Murray Gell-Mann, whose room was separated from Feynman's only by Helen Tuck's office, and Kip Thorne, one of the two or three leading experts on the general theory of relativity, still working at Caltech, but not too busy to take time off to discuss black holes, time travel and Feynman. And then you think, "well, maybe my ideas wouldn't be that good".

The point about Caltech, in academic terms, is that not only does it bring out the best work from its scientists, it also (partly for that reason) attracts the best scientists. So what you end up with is the best of the best. There are always top people eager to become part of the Caltech scene; but Feynman himself has never been directly replaced, even though, after his death, a committee was set up to seek a replacement. They failed to find one, because there is nobody like Feynman around today -- just as there never was anybody like Feynman, except Feynman himself, around before.

There is no formal memorial to Feynman. No grand building, or statue. Even his grave, shared with Gweneth in Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena, is very simple. His real memorial is his work, his books, and the video tapes on which he can still be seen, lecturing in his inimitable style, making difficult concepts seem simple. But there is one artefact which strikes a curious resonance with anybody who has ever heard of Feynman, and which I had been urged, by a friend who knows next to nothing about science but still regards Feynman as a hero for our time, to track down while I was in Pasadena.

The opportunity came at the end of a long talk with Ralph Leighton, in the lobby of my hotel on Los Robles Boulevard. My host in Pasadena, Michael Shermer of the Skeptics Society, sat in with us for a conversation which ranged not only over Feynman's life and work, but also over the reaction of the world at large to his death, and the reaction of Feynman's family and friends to the way he had been presented in various books and articles since then. That conversation brought me as close as I could ever hope to get to the man himself, confirming and strengthening the impressions I already had about what kind of person he was, and shaping the book which you now hold. Richard Feynman was indeed, as well as being a scientific genius, a good man who spread love and affection among his family, friends and acquaintances. In spite of the dark period in his life after the death of Arline, he was a sunny character who made people feel good, a genuinely fun-loving, kind and generous man, as well as being the greatest physicist of his generation. And it is that spirit, rather than the physics, which makes people so curious about the artefact -- Feynman's famous van, replete with diagrams.

Our conversation with Leighton had been so intense that I hesitated to bring up the relatively trivial question I had promised to ask. But as we walked him back to his car in the spring sunshine, I reminded myself that a promise is a promise. "By the way," I said, "whatever happened to Feynman's van?"

"It's still in the family, so to speak," he replied.

Michael Shermer's ears visibly pricked up at the news.


"It needs some work. It's parked out at the back of a repair shop in . . . " and he gave us the name of another part of the Los Angeles urban sprawl, out to the east of Pasadena.

That, I thought, was the end of it. I had no transport of my own in Pasadena, and although I'd kept my promise to ask after the van, I wouldn't be able, as I'd hoped, to get a picture of it for my friend. I had a radio talk show engagement ahead of me, and an early flight out the next morning. But Shermer had other ideas. He offered to drive me over to find the van as soon as I'd finished at KPCC-FM, and seemed at least as eager as I was to make the pilgrimage. A couple of hours later, we were cruising around the location that Leighton had pointed us towards, stopping to call him on Shermer's car phone for directions each time we got lost. Just as the Sun was setting, we found the repair shop, parked, and walked around the back. There it was. Feynman's van, nose up against the wall, looking slightly battered but still with its decorative paintwork of Feynman diagrams. It had clearly been there for some time, and delicate spring flowers wee growing up around its wheels.

We took our pictures and left, congratulating ourselves on completing the "Feynman tour" successfully. Twelve hours later, I was in San Francisco, and it was only on my return home that I heard from Shermer about the sequel to the story. The next day, he had happily recounted the tale of our search for Feynman's van to a friend who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a space research centre in Pasadena. The friend, a sober scientist himself, and hardly an obvious science "groupie", eagerly asked for directions to the repair shop, and went out there the same day, armed with his own camera. Shermer's joke about the Feynman tour has now almost become reality, with a succession of visitors to the relic -- and out of all the pictures I brought back from my California trip, the ones that continue to rouse the most interest are the ones of a beaten up old van parked at the back of a repair shop somewhere east of Pasadena.

I'm not sure why, even though I share something of this enthusiasm. But it's nice to know that something which demonstrates so clearly Feynman's sese of fun and irreverence, as well as referring to his Nobel-prizewinning work, still exists. Leighton suggests that the symbol is particularly appropriate, because the van itself is a symbok of Feynman's free spirit, a vehicle of exploration and discovery of the everyday world, while the diagrams symbolise his exploration and enjoyment of the world of physics. Together, they represent what Feynman was all about -- the joy of discovery, and the pleasure of finding things out. Leighton says he will make sure the van stays in the family of Feynman's friends, and suggests that it might one day form the centrepiece of a travelling Feynman exhibit. Now, that sounds like the kind of memorial even Feynman might have approved of.

Extract from RICHARD FEYNMAN: A life in science, by John & Mary Gribbin. To be published in March 1997 by NAL/Dutton in New York and Viking Penguin in London.

© Copyright John Gribbin 1996.