I’ve had this article by Danny Hillis about employing Richard Feynman when Hillis was setting up Thinking Machines Corporation in my Instapaper queue for quite a while before finally getting round to reading it earlier this week. I can see why it’s reputedly one of the most popular articles on the Long Now web site; one of the qualities that people seemed to love about Feynman throughout his career was that he seemed to be born to explain the world and science to us mere mortals, and that certainly comes out here in how Hillis ends his story (long after the section I quote below, which I like mainly for the nice punchline.)
I know some feel that Feynman was keen to play to the ‘eccentric physicist’ label across his career, but the end of the story Hillis gives us rings true to my ear. Sure, this was a man who was well aware of how much cleverer he was than just about everyone he met, but he used that cleverness to explain how science worked to the rest of us, and appeared to get joy from the sharing.
Anyway, make your own mind up. The story of Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine is a little gem, IMHO:
During those first few months, Richard began studying the router circuit diagrams as if they were objects of nature. He was willing to listen to explanations of how and why things worked, but fundamentally he preferred to figure out everything himself by simulating the action of each of the circuits with pencil and paper.
[…] Richard did a remarkable job of focusing on his “assignment,” stopping only occasionally to help wire the computer room, set up the machine shop, shake hands with the investors, install the telephones, and cheerfully remind us of how crazy we all were. When we finally picked the name of the company, Thinking Machines Corporation, Richard was delighted. “That’s good. Now I don’t have to explain to people that I work with a bunch of loonies. I can just tell them the name of the company.”