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Feynman Lectures on Computation

1 Murray Gell-Mann
Life at CalTech with Feynman and Gell-Man was never boring. Stories of
their exploits abounded —many of Feynman’s now preserved for posterity by
his friend Ralph Leighton in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! There were
many other stories. A friend told me of the time he was about to enter a lecture
class and Gell-Man arrived at the door to give the class. My friend was about to
oper the door but was stopped by Murray saying: “Wait!” There was a storm of
lightning, Gell-Man said “Now!”, and entered the class accompanied by a duly
impressive peal of thunder.

2 Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann


It was during this time at CalTech that Feynman gave his celebrated lecture
in the Beckmon Auditorium on ‘Deciphering Mayan Hieroglyphics’. Feynman’s
account of his honeymoon in Mexico with his second wife Mary Lou, and his
efforts to decipher the Dresden Codex is contained in Surely You’re Joking, Mr.
Feynman! The lecture itself was a typical Feynman tour de force. The story
illustrates perfectly Feynman’s approach to tackling a new subject. Rather than
look at a translation of the Codex, Feynman made believe he was the first to get
hold of it. Struggling with the Mayan bars and dots in the tables, he figured out
that a bar equalled five dots and found the symbol for zero. The bars and dots
carried at twenty the first time but at eighteen the secont time, giving a cycle of
360. The number 584 was prominent in one place and was made up for periods
of 236, 90, 250 and 8. Another prominent number was 2920 or 584 × 5 and close
by there were tables of multiples of 2920 up to 13 × 2920. Here Feynman says he
did the equivalent of looking in the back of the book. He scoured the astronomy
library to find something associated with the number 584 and found out that
583.92 days is the period of Venus as it appears from the Earth. The numbers
236, 90, 250 and 8 were then connected with the different phases of Venus. There
was also another table that had periods of 11, 959 in the Codex which Feytnman
figured out were to be used for predicting lunar eclipses. With a typical down-
to-earth analogy, Feynman likened the Mayan’s fascination with such ‘magic
numbers to our childish delight in watchingthe odometer of a car pass 10000,
20000, 30000 miles and so on. As Feynman says, “Murray Gell-Mann countered
in the following weeks by giving a beautiful set of six lectures concerning the
linguistic relations of all the languages of the world”. For these lectures, Murray
used to arrive clutching armfulls of books and proceed to tell his audience about
the classification of languages into ‘superfamilies’ with a common origin. He was
always fond of drawinf attention to the similarities between English and German

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and, for example, delighted in calling George ‘Zweig’, George ‘Twig’. I still have
some notes of his lectures —with examples from Northern, the Afro-Asiatic, the
Indo-Pacific, the Niger-Kardofanian, the Nilo-Saharian Superfamilies amongst
others.
Even though it seemed a bit strange for a professional particle physicists to
be attending lectures on comparative linguistics, life at CalTech was always
interesting! I have always suspected that Feynman’s account of his time with
his father in the Catskills described in What Do You Care What Other People
Think?, the second volume of anecdotes produced with Ralph Leighton, was
partly directed at Gell-Mann’s passion for languages and names. In the story,
Feynmann’s father says “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages
of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever
about the bird”. Feynman credits his “knowing very early on difference between
knowing the name of something and knowing something” to these experiences
with his father.

3 Feynman
In 1967 the Los Angeles Times Science editor wrote: “A lecture by Dr. Feyn-
man is a rare treat indeed. For humor and drama, suspense and interest it often
rivals Broodway stage plays. And above all, it crackles with clarity. If physics is
the underlying ‘melody’ of science, then Dr. Feynman is its most lucid trouba-
dor.” In the same article,. the author, Irving Bengelsdorf, sums up the essence
of Feynman’s approach: “No matter how difficult the subject —from gravity
through quantum mechanics to relativity— the words are sharp and clears. No
stuffed shirt phrases, no ‘snow jobs’, no ofuscation.” A New York Times article
in the same year said that Feynman “uses hand gestures and intonations the
way Billy Rose used beautiful women on stage, specularly but with grace.”