Richard Feynman is renowned for many things. A Nobel Laureate, he is, without question, one of the most influential physicists who ever lived. A captivating and lucid lecturer, Feynman was one of the greatest science educators of our time. Right up until his death in 1988, the man exuded a boyish charm and a childlike curiosity about the world that was simply impossible to ignore.
Today would have been Feynman's 94th birthday. To celebrate, boingboing's Maggie Koerth-Baker posted this awesome video of an elderly Feynman wailing away at the bongos. A lot of people forget (or simply don't know) that when Feynman wasn't doing Nobel Prize-worthy research, or inspiring the future physicists of the world, he was known to moonlight as a percussionist — and a pretty accomplished one, at that. Featured below is an excerpt from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! that describes, in Feynman's own words, his first brush with bongo-playing.
Happy birthday, Feynman. You are sorely missed.
One time I was in the recreation hall, late at night, when there weren't many people, and I picked up a wastebasket and started to beat the back end of it. Some guy from way downstairs came running all the way up and said, "Hey! You play drums!" It turned out he really knew how to play drums, and he taught me how to play bongos.
There was some guy in the music department who had a collection of African music, and I'd come to his house and play drums. He'd make recordings of me, and then at his parties, he had a game that he called "Africa or Ithaca?" in which he'd play some recordings of drum music, and the idea was to guess whether what you were hearing was manufactured in the continent of Africa, or locally. So I must have been fairly good at imitating African music by that time.
When I came to Caltech, I used to go down to the Sunset Strip a lot. One time there was a group of drummers led by a big fella from Nigeria called Ukonu, playing this wonderful drum music - just percussion - at one of the nightclubs. The second-in-command, who was especially nice to me, invited me to come up on the stage with them and play a little. So I got up there with the other guys and played along with them on the drums for a little while.
I asked the second guy if Ukonu ever gave lessons, and he said yes. So I used to go down to Ukonu's place, near Century Boulevard (where the Watts riots later occurred) to get lessons in drumming. The lessons weren't very efficient: he would stall around, talk to other people, and be interrupted by all kinds of things. But when they worked they were very exciting, and I learned a lot from him.
At dances near Ukonu's place, there would be only a few whites, but it was much more relaxed than it is today. One time they had a drumming contest, and I didn't do very well: They said my drumming was "too intellectual"; theirs was much more pulsing.
One day when I was at Caltech I got a very serious telephone call.
"This is Mr. Trowbridge, Mahster of the Polytechnic School." The Polytechnic School was a small, private school which was across the street diagonally from Caltech. Mr. Trowbridge continued in a very formal voice: "I have a friend of yours here, who would like to speak to you."
"Hello, Dick!" It was Ukonu! It turned out the Master of the Polytechnic School was not as formal as he was making himself out to be, and had a great sense of humor. Ukonu was visiting the school to play for the kids, so he invited me to come over and be on the stage with him, and play along. So we played for the kids together: I played bongos (which I had in my office) against his big tumba drum.
Ukonu had a regular thing: He went to various schools and talked about the African drums and what they meant, and told about the music. He had a terrific personality and a grand smile; he was a very, very nice man. He was just sensational on the drums - he had records out - and was here studying medicine. He went back to Nigeria at the beginning of the war there - or before the war - and I don't know what happened to him.
After Ukonu left I didn't do very much drumming, except at parties once in a while, entertaining a little bit. One time I was at a dinner party at the Leightons' house, and Bob's son Ralph and a friend asked me if I wanted to drum. Thinking that they were asking me to do a solo, I said no. But then they started drumming on some little wooden tables, and I couldn't resist: I grabbed a table too, and the three of us played on these little wooden tables, which made lots of interesting sounds.