In contrast to Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, or Yale, the universities and other institutions of southern California have always offered a far more relaxed, informal culture. When you’re an easy drive from the pounding surf and glowing sand, and the weather is usually agreeable with sunbathing and snorkeling, it’s hard to spend all your time in laboratories and libraries. Even while walking the sun-washed streets of Pasadena — much closer to the mountains than to the ocean — and watching the palm trees sway in the gentle wind, thoughts of fun and frolic cannot help but interrupt any prolonged bout of utter seriousness.
Richard “Dick” Feynman loved his life there, and so did his talented former student (and gambling fiend) Albert “Al” Hibbs. Throughout most of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, they lived relatively close to each other in the town of Altadena, north of Pasadena. Among scientists, Altadena was (and is) best known as the home of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), where Hibbs played a leading role as researcher and spokesman. Hibbs was a space pioneer, having designed Explorer I, the first satellite launched by the United States into Earth’s orbit in 1958. He continued to be the “voice of JPL” and would offer television commentary on Voyager and other missions. Hibbs had done his PhD under Feynman in 1955 on the topic of “The growth of water waves due to the action of the wind.” They co-authored a textbook, QED, and had remained dear friends ever since.
Having lived before in Ithaca, where it was freezing cold much of the year and he’d have to scrape the ice off his car, Feynman relished Altadena’s relaxed atmosphere where he could walk around in shirtsleeves or drive his Dodge van specially painted with Feynman diagrams, enjoying a bohemian lifestyle. One of his closest friends was the experimental artist Jirayr “Jerry” Zorthian, known for his sprawling ranch and his bacchanalian events there.
Feynman and Zorthian had made an informal agreement to take turns teaching each other art and physics. By all accounts, Feynman benefited the most from that deal, as he learned from Zorthian how to render realistic sketch portraits of various subjects. Feynman (often along with Zorthian and other friends) would sometimes have lunch in a Pasadena steakhouse that doubled as a go-go bar, where he would sit at a table, work out physics calculations, and sketch the dancers. He also recruited students and others to model for him at home, with his wife Gweneth’s full permission and support. (She was reported to have served the models milk and cookies.) Feynman’s talent grew enough that he was invited to publicly exhibit his work. He often used the pseudonym “Ofey,” a play on words, combining the French expression “Au Fait” (it is done) with “Feynman.”
Despite the prestige and speaking invitations (which he inevitably turned down) associated with his 1965 Nobel Prize, Feynman simply wanted to have fun. The evidence of this fun-seeking extended from his work in physics to painting portraits, taking relaxing jaunts with his family to the beach, or playing bongo drums with his close friend Ralph Leighton. He was active in Frosh Camp, the annual freshman orientation event at Caltech that included many outdoor activities such as kayaking. He joined the Caltech musical theater, directed by Shirley Marneus, and participated in numerous productions, such as Fiorello and South Pacific. An English professor, Jenijoy La Belle, who acted with him in some of the plays, introduced him to the poetry of William Blake and the joys of library reading rooms. Along with another friend from JPL, Richard “Dick” Davies, a lover of marathon racing, Feynman took up running. Davies also shared with Feynman an interest in art. In short, Feynman lived a life full of rich variety.
Despite the fun and frolic, Feynman’s years at Caltech were extremely productive, including his seminal work in superfluids, the V-A model of the weak interaction, speculations about nanotechnology and quantum computers, and the parton model of hadron (particles experiencing the strong force) constituents. His multifaceted, carefree existence (at least until he became ill with cancer in his final years) did not seem to detract from his brilliant contributions. In fact, Caltech managed to spawn (and still does today) numerous important advances and a steady stream of Nobel Prizes for cutting edge research, all while basking in the Pasadena exuberance.
Of all the days of the year, there was one that was very special for Feynman, Gweneth, and their circle of friends: April the first. That’s when Al Hibbs would often take a break from his JPL commentary and space mission work to conduct a themed April Fools Day costume party. Each year the theme would be different — involving a distinct question or challenge. And each year, as long as he was healthy enough to attend, Feynman would match the theme, assisted by Gweneth’s skills in costume making.
Hibbs lived in a spacious two-story American Craftsman Style house — just perfect for such social events — that had a lovely, natural pond on its grounds, surrounded by rocks. He began the parties in the 1970s, along with his second wife, Marka. They loved developing the challenges, delivering the invitations, and seeing the reactions from their guests in costume form.
One year, the challenge was to “come dressed as a character from myth or legend.” Feynman cloaked himself in a flowing, white robe and donned a long gray beard. Someone asked him if he was supposed to be Moses. “No,” Feynman responded, “I’m God.” Hibbs quipped that everyone knew that all along.
Another year, the theme was “regions of the Earth.” Gweneth put together a wonderful outfit for her husband that resembled the traditional garb of a Ladakhi monk from the Himalayas. Local artist Sylvia Posner was so impressed that she painted a portrait of him in that costume, embellishing it with him holding a Feynman diagram in his hand that looked somewhat like lightning bolts.
Yet another occasion, the topic was “astronomical bodies,” perfect for Hibbs. Feynman simply wore a regular, plain suit. It was around the time that Feynman’s bestselling autobiographical account Surely You’re Joking appeared. According to Shirley Marneus, who was at that party, when other partygoers asked him what celestial body he was supposed to be, he said something like, “Well you think I’m joking, but actually I’m Sirius.”
Perhaps Feynman’s most outrageous costume came in response to the challenge, “Come dressed as a king, a queen, a knave, or a fool.” Guests were astonished to see a regal woman, wearing a plain, solid green dress, white gloves, and a homely pillbox hat, bearing a large purse, and sitting primly and properly on a chair. She looked very much like Queen Elizabeth II. On closer inspection, it was Feynman in women’s garb, wearing makeup and a wig. Guests were floored. At the end of the party, as the house band played raunchy music, Feynman stripped down, to the laughter of all.
After Feynman died of cancer in February 1988 after a long illness and repeated surgeries, Al and Marka Hibbs decided to honor him some months later with a special event, the “Richard Feynman Memorial Costume Party.” Guests were advised to “come dressed as an interesting question.” A saddened Gweneth attended by herself. She wore an ornament attached to a cord around her neck that ended in a sharp point. Her somber question was “what’s the point?”
This Halloween season, let’s recall the spirits of the Hibbs and the Feynmans, and the jovial, but inquisitive ambience of Pasadena in the 1970s and 1980s. Perhaps you might think of scientific questions to challenge your guests at your own themed costumed parties. Take the time to create your own fun, science-based outfit. As October reaches its festive conclusion, surely you’re cloaking!
Edited by Ethan Siegel. Originally published in Starts with a Bang!