March 29, 2001
Being Richard Feynman
I've always felt that what viewers bring to a play or movie by way of personal background and experience determines their level of enjoyment (or dislike) as much as the skills of the actors and author.
Having spent some 30 years as a science writer at UCLA, during which I must have interviewed well over a thousand scientists and engineers and then tried to interpret their often abstruse research for the lay reader, I brought a high degree of empathy to the performance of "QED" at the Mark Taper Forum.
The play chronicles the exuberant, questioning mind and spirit of physicist Richard Feynman, which did not desert him even as he faced incurable cancer and death.
Feynman shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics for his formulation of quantum electrodynamics -- thus the play's title. To refresh your Latin, q.e.d. also stands for quod erat demonstrandum, which the program notes translate as "that proves it," and my dictionary, more felicitously, I think, as "which was to be proved," certainly more in the spirit of Feynman, who never took anything as permanently proven.
Feynman was a certified genius who questioned everything and explored what to ordinary minds appears trivial -- for instance, why dry spaghetti always breaks in half when you take it out of the box.
He was also a multifaceted fun guy who took distinguished visitors to his favorite topless bar, played the drums, acted in amateur theatricals at Caltech, deciphered Mayan hieroglyphics and was inordinately fond of the opposite sex -- including his three wives.
So it would have been easy to play Feynman as the proverbial eccentric scientist, a kind of hip Einstein. It is to the credit of playwright Peter Parnell, director Gordon Davidson and Alan Alda as Feynman that they resisted such a temptation. They are not afraid to insert some science lessons -- how photons behave when they hit a glass surface, for instance -- and more importantly, the scientific method and viewpoint in a still largely superstitious world.
They have been aided by Feynman's extraordinary ability to explain his complex research and methodology in simple terms. That ability confirms my observation over 30 years that it is the top scientists who are confident enough to converse with laymen, while it is the young post-docs and assistant professors who take refuge in convoluted jargon.
Even more important than explaining specific theories and discoveries, Feynman -- and the play -- convey the scientific attitude.
As the physicist put it, "Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty -- some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure -- that it is possible to live and not know."
Feynman was, of course, Jewish. He was rejected by Columbia in 1935 because the university had already filled its quota of Jewish freshmen.
The play's only reference to his religion -- or rather rejection of it -- comes in a flashback, when he begins to recite the "Kaddish" (with fine Hebrew pronunciation) at his father's grave.
To his mother's anguish, he stops after the first few words, unable to praise a God neither he nor his father believed in.
"QED" is a play that challenges the mind as well as the emotions as it portrays that rarest of human beings, a man of absolute intellectual integrity.
"QED," Mark Taper Forum, through May 13. Tickets $30-$44; reduced prices weekdays two hours before curtain, and to Medicare card holders. More in-formation: call (213) 628-2772.