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My work and career: Schooldays

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My brother, Richard: Brother and sister relationship
Joan Feynman Scientist
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I can't think of any miserable stories where anybody did anything miserable to me. Except, I guess when I was very small, my parents left me alone for a few hours... an hour or two while they went somewhere and then they came back. When they came back, put the key in the door and opened the door, there was clanging and banging and eerie... And my brother jumped up in bed and said, 'It works, it works!' He had put an alarm. He was still very young. And he was just delighted that it worked.

My brother showed me other very interesting things. We lived on Long Island, which is an island on the other side of this country. And in Long Island, we had very frequent – in the summer time – very frequent thunder and lightning storms. And you'd see a flash and then you'd hear the lightning. And my brother told me, 'You want to know how far away that lightning...?' You know, he told me they really took place together at the same time, the lightning and the thunder. So he taught me to count the difference in time where I was because light travels with the speed of light and thunder travelled with the speed of sound. And there was a difference. And he taught me to count from one to the other. So we'd know how far away it is. So even now if I see lightning, I say, 'One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, three hippopotamus, four hippopotamus...', because my brother had carefully measured what word to use so that it was a second. So that was my brother teaching me physics.

I was his lab assistant. He had a lab. This... we're not living in the big house anymore. We're living in a small house and he had an electronics lab and there were all sorts of switches to pull and so on, to make noises and have shocks and he wanted to show that to his friends. And so he had boxes around for me to stand on and he would set everything up and I would stand there and he would say, 'Okay, go'. And I go like that and my other finger being in the... I would get a shock. I guess I put my foot finger in and then did this and got a shock in me. But I was used to that. And I knew I was going to get paid a penny a shock. So that was very, very nice.

And the other thing I could do, I don't know. I remember something that I did where my reward was getting to pull my brother's hair. He had nice hair. And I would pull it as hard as I could, which since I was very small, was not very hard. But he always made this face, which looked like he was in terrible pain. And I enjoyed that.

And he used to ride me on his bicycle. You know, there's a bar on the bicycle, and you can put your little sister sitting on that bar. And he was very careful. The whole time he was riding me around town he sang, 'Keep your foot out of the... wheel, keep your foot out of the wheel, keep your foot out of the wheel'. And I never stuck my foot in the wheel. So that worked out okay too. So you get the idea that we were a happy family. There were money troubles sometimes, but that was the Depression. It was not that somebody was doing something they shouldn't, and that's the way it was.

When I first got my first interesting job that I really thought I'd like, it had something to do with the interaction of the earth's... particle from the sun on the earth's magnetic field. I always call it Aurora but Aurora is only one aspect of it. So I was feeling very happy about that. I thought, I'll tell my brother. Then I thought, wait a minute – did I tell you this story? – wait a minute, my brother is a very smart man. If I tell my brother what I'm working on, he is going to tell me the answer and I will have no fun. So I went to my brother and explained to him – please keep... we'll divide up. I said, 'How about you and I divide nature into two things? I'll take anything that has to do with the earth-sun relationship and you can take the rest'. And he said, 'Okay'.

So one day he went to a lab which did a lot of work on the earth-sun relationship and the head of the laboratory, a guy named Akasofu, asked Richard... he showed him around and showed him all the interesting things and said, 'Wouldn't you like to work on this?' And Richard said, 'Yes, but I have to ask my sister'. So he came home and he asked me and I said no. So he had to report to Akasofu that no, he was not allowed to do that. And a lot of people thought it was a joke. But it wasn't a joke. I wouldn't have any fun, you know, if every time I found something interesting it took him a half hour to tell me the answer.

I also for a long time did not use my maiden name when I wrote a paper because my maiden name was Joan Feynman. I used my married name long after I was divorced so that nobody would know I was Richard's sister because I didn't want anything... any special stuff for being Richard's sister. He never helped me on anything. Well, no, that's not true. He one day went to visit some university or other and the guy who was there said, 'I understand you're Joan Feynman's brother'. He said, 'Yes'. That was the only person that ever put it that way. But he was a good brother.

Joan Feynman (b. 1927) is an American astrophysicist. She has made important contributions to the study of solar wind particles and fields, sun-Earth relations and magnetospheric physics. In particular, Feynman is known for developing an understanding of the origin of auroras. During her career, Feynman was an author or co-author of more than 100 scientific publications. She also edited three scientific books. In 2002, she was awarded NASA's distinguished Exceptional Achievement Medal.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes Alexander Ruzmaikin

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Richard Feynman

Duration: 8 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2019

Date story went live: 05 November 2019