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My brother, Richard: How he came to be so smart

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My family history: Living in New York
Joan Feynman Scientist
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New Your City had five boroughs... New York's obviously a big city and had five boroughs which were pieces of land. And Far Rockaway was in Queens and that was on the Atlantic Ocean. And there was this narrow place which was a peninsula, along the sea that is the bay which was behind it. I had a stupid problem because you learnt in school that the ocean was to the east. But where we were, the ocean was in the wrong direction so I never could figure out the directions. But anyway. So in the summer time, the people in New York City if they were any acquaintance of yours, they would come out in the train for the weekend. So my mother had towels, pot... huge piles of towels for the people that came out in the summer. And I had them for several years. I didn't buy towels after I got my own house.

And... but in the wintertime, it was terribly afar to... You see, the people in Manhattan believe that Long Island was cooler than Manhattan, which wasn't true. Long Island was on an ocean, and so in the summer, the ocean which had... was less easy to change the temperature, the ocean made it cool and in the winter it made it warm.

Well, the people that lived in Far Rockaway... there were two kinds of people. There was a railroad that went down the middle of the peninsula. The Jews lived on one side and the blacks lived on the other side. And the blacks were household help. All over, there was no place where a black person could get a decent job. I mean, it's just the way it was. The black people that... the black women that worked for us, we were very friendly with them.

If you know what the Jewish... what the Jews do when somebody dies... No. Well, they're supposed to be buried within a day unless the day is Saturday, in which case it's two days. But the family sits in the house – it's called shiva – and all the friends come and commiserate with them and somebody takes care of... When my father died, my mother went back into their room and didn't come out and talk to people for a while, but our cleaning woman came to visit. And my brother Richard was operating things. And he took the cleaning woman back to see my mother and said to the assembled people, 'A friend of the family'. She was black and old. But then that how we treated it. She was a friend of the family.

He [my father] used to paint and he met a painter who was standing out and nobody wanted his work. So my father decided he would get a portrait of me. And I was about 13. So week after week after week, I sat for this guy. And in between sittings, he took out what he had done before Christmas and it was no good. So after a while, we just stopped that. But that was the view.

And there was a...  the women in town watched for things like kids going to school, shoes and they... they played bridge for money. And the money was put in a... in a pot and when they got enough money, they bought shoes for the kids or they bought coal for somebody they like. So they were being very useful for the town. And no shame for anybody being hard up.

In my house, a favorite game was... his favorite occupation was... We had Encyclopaedia Britannica and my father would take a book out and open it and say, 'Look at this' and then read it. And then read another or look up something else connected. And we liked to do that. It was... it was fun. But now looking back on it, I suppose it was an odd way for teenagers to have fun, but we did. It was our family that liked to do that. And my brother used to read the encyclopedia in math and he would make notes. I swear to God, he would make notes. And then we moved around and the encyclopedia went to a cousin. And then the cousin wanted more room in her bedroom, then the encyclopedia... and she wanted to get rid of it. And I said, 'Well, let's try to sell it to somebody'. Richard's got things in it and we couldn't find them. I don't know why we couldn't find them. But those things now, if we still had that encyclopedia with the things that Richard had written, now they would... I have a thing here now from a guy who sells these things and the prices they get – hundreds of thousands of dollars for little things. We'd all be wealthy as could be, but we threw out the encyclopedia because we couldn't... you know...

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: New York

Duration: 8 minutes, 54 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2019

Date story went live: 05 November 2019