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My brother, Richard: A sad love story

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My brother, Richard: My first teacher
Joan Feynman Scientist
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I had a brother who was interested in science. I had a father who was interested... was always asking my brother a lot of questions. I had a mother who had no objection to it. My brother's room was always a laboratory. It was a town where people were interesting. We lived in an apartment house and each apartment had a storage bin, which was big enough to make into a little lab. And one of the boys, he was my age... he had a storage bin that was a chem lab. And I wanted to... to get one and my mother said no. I didn't understand at the time, but she... in her mind there were dangerous men who would attack a little kid in a lonely cellar pouring things in one another. So then my brother was at Princeton. And he said, 'Well, why don't you make a telescope?' So I said, 'How am I going to do that?' He said, 'I'll buy the glass. I'll give you the directions. You send it to me in Princeton and we'll check the measurements and so on'. But somehow I never did. I don't know why I never did. Probably, I was lazy. That was probably it. You sort of need companions when you're a kid to do something like that.

I discovered science at home. My brother showed me all kinds of neat things. My brother also... he also babysat for me. And once I went to bed I was supposed to stay in bed. So I would call to him, 'Richard, I'm thirsty'. So he would come in with a glass of water and stand there and go like this with a full glass of water, and the water, of course, stays in the glass if you do it fast enough. Well, one night he missed, the whole glass of water went soaring through the room and hit the wall. And... so that was the end of that particular trick.

My mother ran an orderly house, not like me. And if you went to bed, you were in bed. And one night when I must have been five or six, Richard got permission to wake me up in the night and take me to the golf course because there was an aurora on the golf course. And that was the first aurora. I saw it was pretty good compared to any I've seen since. But that's the story of the aurora. So he showed me and he told me what it was as best as he knew and I was fascinated. I have a picture of it, you know, huge green moving things up above the sky. So Richard was very interest... We were very close when we were kids.

Arithmetic came very early. He would give me a couple of numbers like one and three or one plus three and I had memorized four and that was correct and so I got a little reward, which was pulling his hair and he'd go like that. But I didn't learn until very recently that it doesn't hurt when you pull the hair. So, you know, science was always there.

My brother, you know, has all sorts of teachers' prizes while I was the student. For the beginning student, he loved to tell me about nature and to show me little experiments like if you have... You know those old-fashioned Victrolas where you had a record that you put on a plate and then you turned it on and it went around. He used to put marbles at different places and we'd watch the marble go out, because it was considered angular momentum.

When he [my brother] was in high school, they used to have contests with other schools and he normally won them. So he was the best in five states or something like that, so my mother was very proud of that. But on... one of her best friends said to her, when my mother told her that, 'Lucille, does Richard have any other sports?'

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: chemistry laboratory, telescope, trick, aurora, arithmetic, marbles, science

Duration: 7 minutes, 46 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2019

Date story went live: 05 November 2019