Saturday, December 10, 2011

Advent calendar #10: It sounds Greek to me!

Of course we cannot allow Richard Feynman to be missing when we tell physics anecdotes. He told his anecdotes well himself, and they have been captured by Ralph Leighton in the book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" One of my favorites is this story:

I don't know why, but I'm always very careless, when I go on a trip, about the address or telephone number or anything of the people who invited me. I figure I'll be met, or somebody else will know where we're going; it'll get straightened out somehow.

One time, in 1957, I went to a gravity conference at the University of North Carolina. I was supposed to be an expert in a different field who looks at gravity. I landed at the airport a day late for the conference (I couldn't make it the first day), and I went out to where the taxis were. I said to the dispatcher, "I'd like to go to the University of North Carolina."

"Which do you mean," he said, "the State University of North Carolina at Raleigh, or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill?"

Needless to say, I hadn't the slightest idea. "Where are they?" I asked, figuring that one must be near the other.

"One's north of here, and the other is south of here, about the same distance."

I had nothing with me that showed which one it was, and there was nobody else going to the conference a day late like I was.

That gave me an idea. "Listen," I said to the dispatcher. "The main meeting began yesterday, so there were a whole lot of guys going to the meeting who must have come through here yesterday. Let me describe them to you: They would have their heads kind of in the air, and they would be talking to each other, not paying attention to where they were going, saying things to each other, like 'Gmunu.Gmunu.'"

His face lit up. "Ah, yes," he said. "You mean Chapel Hill!" He called the next taxi waiting in line. "Take this man to the university at Chapel Hill."

"Thank you," I said, and I went to the conference.


  1. Hi Bee & Stefan,

    The problem today is that Feynman’s solution would not work as everyone with ear buds in or texting on a smart phone would appear to be so addled. I guess if all else failed he could have resorted the path integral approach to find his way and yet it certainty wouldn’t as it did with this method require the least action for him as he would have been forced to explore all the possible histories;)



  2. it sounds a lot like a variation on an old Pauli his case, he asked the manager of a train station if he had seen some strange looking people arriving the day before

  3. True story: I was at a conference on the cosmological parameter Omega in Chile about 12 years ago. After the long flight to Santiago, we got into a very small plane to fly to the south of Chile. (While at the airport in Santiago, my bag with essentially all my important stuff was stolen, but I got it back in time. A fascinating story for another time.) After arriving, we were collected by a minivan which took us to the conference (about another hour). The driver told us that earlier in the day they had had a sign with just the Greek letter Omega on it, thinking that that would be enough. Unfortunately, there was a conference of mathematicians somewhere else but which used the same airport. After seeing the sign and asking if this was the bus for the conference, the mathematicians boarded up, only to realize much later that they were at the wrong conference.

  4. Wow! A Feyman story which is neither an obvious invention nor designed to prove that Feynman was the smartest/coolest/sexiest sentient being in the observable universe! Amazing!


COMMENTS ON THIS BLOG ARE PERMANENTLY CLOSED. You can join the discussion on Patreon.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.