Surely You’re Joking

By John Hertz: (reprinted in part from No Direction Home 15)  May 11, 2018, was the hundredth birthday of the great physicist and wise-guy Richard Feynman. The California Institute of Technology, home of his professional life since 1952, mounted an exhibit “The Mind’s Eye” in the Beckman Museum, running through June 14, 2019.

The title was well chosen.  “Visualization in some form or other,” he’d said, “is a vital part of my thinking”; it was on one of the walls.  He had, I said to an exhibit host, a gift for looking from the abstract to the concrete: hence Feynman diagrams; plunging a piece of O-ring material into ice water at a hearing on the Challenger disaster; winning a Nobel Prize and teaching undergraduates.

What a challenge to build a museum exhibit about a master of theoretical physics.  Fortunately it was about Feynman.

There were lots of photographs, including him in a swimsuit on a beach juggling, and in a frilled Havana shirt playing bongos for a 1977 Cal Tech production of Guys and Dolls. He’d managed getting back and forth to drum in a Cal Tech Kismet during the 1986 Challenger hearings.  There were several of his drums.

There was his 1940 notebook “Things I Don’t Know About”.  There was a 1963 curved-space lecture handout.  Figure 55-2 was a bug on a sphere.  “He is also a bug like the others … this time … the temperature is different at different places…. the bug and any rulers he uses are all made of the same material which expands when it is heated.”

Goggles and earphones put me four rows above the floor at one of his lectures.  He told of going around getting into things on the Manhattan Project.

Security had been fierce.  He’d opened weakly-locked file cabinets and reported.  On a scientist’s safe he tried the digits of pi; no go; then e: open.  Edward Teller said “I lock things in my desk; isn’t that better?”  Feynman sneaked away and extracted papers.  Teller said “I’ll show you my desk.” They went to his office.  Teller unlocked the desk.  Bottom drawer empty.  Teller said “Evidently the security of the desk isn’t so good — as you may already have found for yourself.”  Feynman recounting this said “Pulling a stunt on a brilliant man gives no satisfaction.  He sees things too fast.”

Outside in Glanville Courtyard a fountain played over a five-foot dark green granite snub cube. A plaque explained that a snub cube was chosen because its 24 vertices are reminiscent of the iron-storage protein ferritin, which has 24 identical protein subunits; both have 4-3-2 symmetry: fourfold axes, three-fold axes, twofold axes.

Ferritin (the plaque didn’t say this), found in plants and animals, pertains to biology, organic chemistry, and inorganic chemistry, like the Beckman Institute.

Besides, snub cubes are way cool.  Linus Pauling liked them.

A mile and a half away was the Pasadena shop of Denong Tea Co., which opened in 2017.  Denong (Chinese; “virtuous farmer”) specializes in pu-erh tea, grown in Yunnan (left to my own devices I’d spell these Têh-nung and p‘u-êrh).

Ms. Betty Hu brewed me one young raw pu-erh, Sweet Clarity from 2016, and one ripe pu-erh, Millennium Distant Mountains of unknown harvest, brewing the raw pu-erh in a porcelain pot and serving it in glass, the ripe in a clay pot and serving in porcelain.  The shop uses Crystal Geyser water.

While I was drinking Sweet Clarity, a regular customer arrived who liked another young raw pu-erh, Mountain Oasis from 2017; we exchanged cups, and afterward I asked Ms. Hu to pour her some of my Millennium Distant Mountains; we conversed.

Raw pu-erh can be aged a decade or more; young, the tea liquor (I use this term advisedly; its colloquial meaning “distilled alcoholic spirits” is not the whole truth) is bright yellow-green; flavor, crisp.  Ripe pu-erh, a relatively recent development, has been carefully treated to accelerate aging; its liquor is deep maroon, like Madeira wine; flavor, earthy.

Speaking of pots, how are you, Mr. Wilson?

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