What Impossible Meant to Feynman

Physicist Paul Steinhardt remembers a great mentor and scientist.

By Paul J. Steinhardt | NAUTILUS


The word resonated throughout the large lecture hall. I had just finished describing a revolutionary concept for a new type of matter that my graduate student, Dov Levine, and I had invented.

The Caltech lecture room was packed with scientists from every discipline across campus. The discussion had gone remarkably well. But just as the last of the crowd was filing out, there arose a familiar, booming voice and that word: “Impossible!”

I could have recognized that distinctive, gravelly voice with the unmistakable New York accent with my eyes closed. Standing before me was my scientific idol, the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, with his shock of graying, shoulder-length hair, wearing his characteristic white shirt, along with a disarming, devilish smile.

Feynman had won a Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work developing the first quantum theory of electromagnetism. Within the scientific community, he was already considered one of the greatest theoretical physicists of the 20th century. He would eventually achieve iconic status with the general public, as well, because of his pivotal role identifying the cause of the Challenger space shuttle disaster and his two bestselling books, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?

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