Who is this guy Alan Alda is playing? Who is the hero of Alda's virtually one-man show, Q.E.D., playing at Lincoln Center til mid-December?
Physicist Richard Feynman, who won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 and was profiled on a PBS Nova program as "the finest mind since Einstein."

I became familiar with his personality in 1993 when I visited Los Alamos and researched a story about the birth of the atomic bomb. Feynman had died in 1988, but I spoke with many of his friends. They told me stories about him, and more information comes from his autobiography, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character."

When Feynman joined the secret atomic bomb project in Los Alamos in 1943, he was young, tall, dark and handsome. Isaac Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science contains the unusual identification of Feynman as "renowned for his excellence as a lecturer and on bongo drums at parties." His associates at Los Alamos were the brightest young physicists of their time, and six of them went on to win Noble Prizes. The average age of project workers was mid-twenties. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the boss, was only 39. These very-young men held the fate of the world in their hands. As one of them said, "We were a bunch of kids." Another one says: "We were young, optimistic, jocular, enthusiastic people who were approaching the deepest riddles of nature." This small group of people transplanted to a tiny, isolated community in the mountains of New Mexico conceived the weapons that would forever change history.

Hans Bethe (pronounced like the second letter of the Greek alphabet) was 89 when I spoke with him, right after he delivered a 90-minute lecture on cosmic rays. A skier and mountain-climber, Bethe, still living, has blue eyes and light-colored hair which stood up on end. In one old photo he looks like Art Garfunkel. Bethe said to me: "I'm half Jewish and I never was observant. Very few scientists were. Until Hitler came, religion made no difference whatever. But then Hitler took away our jobs and then started arresting us." Bethe and others say that their overwhelming motivation was to destroy Nazi Germany and save European Jewry, more than just winning a war for America, and they didn't think much about the war against Japan. He and his wife, Rose, feel they were fortunate to be at Los Alamos with their young children at that time: "So many other families were separated by the war."

Bob Serber was one of Oppenheimer's post-doctoral students at Berkeley and followed him to Los Alamos, where he became the chief planner. He told me: "It was wonderful. The scenery. The friendships. The weekends. The lab was closed on Sunday, and you couldn't take any of your work out of the lab because of security. So we rode horses. Oppie taught us how." Serber was 85 and enjoying life with his second wife and their two teen-age sons when I got to know him. He died in 1997.

Victor Weisskopf was at Los Alamos with his wife and two babies. He had been a friend of Einstein's in Vienna, and later when Einstein lived at Princeton. Viki, as he likes to be called, was a pianist, Einstein a violinist. "We both loved Mozart and played Mozart duets." Weisskopf, in his mid-80's, talked with me, as Bethe did, about the large number of Jews involved:

"Maybe it's because physics employs Talmudian logic. Or maybe it's Darwinian. My father back in Austria used to tell me, 'You have to be ten times better than the goy to get the position at the University.' So we learned through generations of anti Semitism that we had to be better than others in order to survive. I came to this country in 1937 because of obvious reasons. We were all afraid of Hitler. We refugees knew better than anyone else how bad it would be if he won the war."

Victor and Ellen Weisskopf felt that the atomic bomb compound, strangely, was an ideal place to raise small children: "There wasn't much traffic in the streets, and the security fence around the town kept them from getting lost."

All these men had warm memories of Feynman. Richard, like most of the others, was skeptical about religion. He dropped out of Hebrew School in Far Rockaway, N.Y., just before his Bar Mitzvah when he found out that stories about the Maccabees mixed fiction with fact. "I thought nature was so interesting that I didn't want it distorted by stories of miracles," he said.

But, even though he was non religious, his ethnicity had an influence on him. When Richard Feynman's application was sent to Princeton in 1939, the head of the department, H.D. Smyth, wrote to a colleague: "Is Feynman Jewish? We have to keep their proportion in our department reasonably small." His Christian colleague wrote back: "Feynman of course is Jewish but as compared to other Jews, he is more attractive personally." Admissions quotas barred most Jews from graduate schools and from teaching positions. The chairman of Harvard's chemistry department, Albert Coolidge, said "We know perfectly well that names ending in 'berg' or 'stein' have to be skipped."

Feynman was newly married when he was recruited to work on the atomic project. When he arrived at Los Alamos, he was told he'd be living dormitory style, two men in a room. "But I didn't want anyone else in my room," Feynman told his friends later. "I got there first. I happened to have a bag with some of my wife's things in it. So I put Arline's nightgown on the second bed, and her slippers on the floor, and I threw her powder all over the bathroom." When officials inspected the room they assumed that Feynman was keeping a woman there and they didn't assign anyone else to the apartment.

Eleanor Jette, a Los Alamos housewife, said: "Dick Feynman had a private war with the censors. Dick and his young wife corresponded in code." Sometimes Arline would write him a letter then tear it into irregular pieces so he could assemble it like a jig-saw puzzle.

It gave Feynman great amusement to mathematically work out the combination numbers of the steel safes in Los Alamos. Feynman once broke into the safe of the famed Edward Teller and left a note: "Guess who?" Feynman later wrote: "I opened the safes which contained behind them the entire secret of the atomic bomb, the whole schmeer." As one of the leaders, Feynman already knew as much as anyone about the bomb, and there was no secret inside anyone's safe. He was just having fun.

Teller is known for his thick, bushy eyebrows and his Kissinger like low voice, as well as for his advocacy of hydrogen bombs during the Cold War. Stanley Kubrick based his movie villain Dr. Strangelove on Teller. But at Los Alamos Ed Teller was a young father who loved to stay up late at night, sometimes til 3 a.m., eating chocolate and playing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies on the piano. Feynman teased him for not coming to early-morning scientific meetings. He hardly ever appeared before ten. "I was not much of a team player," says Teller.

One evening, a soldier who came from Brooklyn baked a pizza. At that time pizza was an exotic dish, virtually unknown in the United States. Trying to find someone who would appreciate the food, the soldier invited Enrico Fermi to join him. (Fermi was the native of Rome who created the first atomic chain reaction.) Mrs. Fermi said that illustrates the informality of Los Alamos relationships. To me, the story illustrates how little Americans in the 1940s knew about other countries and ethnicities.

Government bureaucrats had a distrust of foreigners. After Fermi testified before the Uranium Committee early in the war, a member of the committee who never heard of him, and didn't know that Fermi was the world's greatest expert in nuclear physics, asked, "Who is this Fermi? Is he a Fascist, or what?"

While all the scientists I spoke with had their wives and children with them at Los Alamos, Feynman did not. His bride, Arline, had tuberculosis and had only a year to live. Oppenheimer made arrangements for her to stay at a hospital in Albuquerque and for Feynman to visit her on weekends. Sometimes he would borrow an old Buick from Klaus Fuchs, one of the few scientists who had a car.

Klaus Fuchs was a 34-year-old theoretical physicist, the son of a German Protestant minister. He had become a British citizen and came to Los Alamos as part of the British scientific team. According to the scientists with whom I spoke, Fuchs was quiet, friendly and helpful. He often baby-sat for Ed and Mici Teller's young son and he loaned his old Buick to Dick Feynman.

On two occasions in 1945, Fuchs drove that Buick to Santa Fe and passed secret formulas to a Soviet agent. No one learned about this espionage until 1950. Fuchs then was sentenced to life in prison. In 1960 he was freed and sent to the Soviet Union in a swap for the captured American pilot, Francis Gary Powers.

Arline Feynman died on June 16, 1945. After the war, Richard followed Hans Bethe to Cornell University.

This, then, is a glimpse at an important time in Feynman's life. Q.E.D. gives theater-goers a look at him at a later period.



Key Subjects: 
Q.E.D., Richard Feynman, Alan Alda, Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Jews, Atomic Bomb
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
November 2001