My acquaintance with RPF was peripheral: I was a student at Caltech from
1956-58, after which I transferred to Stanford. While there I took the E&M
course from Matt Sands -- a very interesting and lively if somewhat caustic
professor -- sat in on some of RPF's lectures, and
also passed my Physics candidacy exam with RPF on my committee, along with
Willie Fowler and Prof. Smythe. So I really know very little about Feynman
professionally, but I do recall a few personal anecdotes which may amuse, even
if they don't enlighten.
I first encountered RPF at the TGIF parties where he usually appeared with a propeller-driven beanie, playing his bongos. He was very popular with the ladies, but we had a sense that his mind did not operate according to the usual rules. I remember the night before my candidacy exam, which I prepared for like for the Spanish Inquisition, spending over a month on the third floor of Kellogg lab in a little room reviewing everything that anyone ever knew about physics. Anyway, that night I was having a steak I could not afford (I remember it cost $4), and I overheard two salesmen talking in the next booth. One was saying: "I could not sleep last night, because some crazy professor from Caltech was playing his bongo drums at 3 am in the motel courtyard."
The most poignant of these was something that happened during my exam. At one point during the three-hour oral I began to feel that I was winning, when Feynman asked: "When your mother serves you a hot bowl of chicken soup, which way does the smoke go, and why?" I answered correctly, and he segue-ed with: "When the Good Humor man takes the ice cream bar out of the cold box, which way does the smoke go, and why?" After I answered these to his satisfaction (they were not the hardest questions that morning), he asked: "How does a diffraction grating work?" Now, you know, Feynman had a reputation as a wit, so I assumed he was simultaneously making a pun and also trying to catch me out on a basic concept of physics. Like a fool, I answered: "Prof. Feynman, it doesn't work, it just lies there." Thank God he was a tolerant man-- and Prof. Smythe had already turned off his hearing aid.
Back in 1967 I was asked to organize the Physical Science portion of a three-day conference to be held in 1968 at U. Chicago on the value of a liberal education. I had the idea of inviting Feynman. Telegdi made the phone call and was able to lure Feynman to come, and all classes were suspended for three days while the student-oriented conference was in session. I still remember how RPF gave his talk from the stage of the Cambridge-gothic Mandel Hall auditorium. At one point, he talked about unnecessarily "wheeling up the heavy artillery of physics" to solve a problem, as he did so bending forward, both arms outstretched, as if he were pushing a big garbage dumpster across the stage. The kids loved it, and him. Afterwards, I was given the honor of guiding him to lunch with students in the graduate dorms -- another big success -- after which he asked me if I knew where the men's room was. We went there, and as we stood side-by-side at the urinals, I mentioned that on February 10, 1958, he had been on my candidacy committee at Caltech. The first words out of his mouth were "Happy anniversary" -- I had failed to realize that it was exactly ten years to the day! If anyone had predicted to me ten years earlier that I would one day be pissing side-by-side with Feynman, I would have thought he was loco.