Richard Feynman is one of the few scientists that ordinary folks might recognize by name, along with Einstein, Newton, Darwin, Sagan, and Bill Nye. (Neil deGrasse Tyson is headed for that list.) Part of this is because Richard Feynman was the closest non-fictional approximation to Buckaroo Banzai.
Compare excerpts from their Wikipedia entries:
Dissatisfied with a life devoted exclusively to medicine, Buckaroo Banzai perfected a wide range of skills. He designed and drove high-powered automobiles. He studied bujutsu and particle physics. His skill with a sixgun was reputed to eclipse that of Wyatt Earp. He spoke a dozen languages and wrote songs in all of them. His band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers, was one of the most popular, hard-rocking bar bands in east New Jersey (Buckaroo plays electric guitar and pocket trumpet), though its members (bearing names like Rawhide, Reno, the Swede, Perfect Tommy, Big Norse, and Pecos Bill) were not professional musicians at all, but rather cartographers and botanists, linguists and propellant engineers, an entomologist and an epidemiologist.
Before entering college, (Feynman) was experimenting with and re-creating mathematical topics, such as the half-derivative, using his own notation. In high school, he was developing the mathematical intuition behind his Taylor series of mathematical operators. … On occasion, Feynman would find an isolated section of the mesa to drum in the style of American natives; “and maybe I would dance and chant, a little”. These antics did not go unnoticed, and rumors spread about a mysterious Indian drummer called “Injun Joe”. … Bored, he indulged his curiosity by learning to pick the combination locks on cabinets and desks used to secure papers. In one case he found the combination to a locked filing cabinet by trying the numbers a physicist would use (it proved to be 27–18–28 after the base of natural logarithms, e = 2.71828…), and found that the three filing cabinets where a colleague kept a set of atomic bomb research notes all had the same combination. … Responding to Hubert Humphrey’s congratulation for his Nobel Prize, Feynman admitted to a long admiration for the then vice president. In a letter to an MIT professor dated December 6, 1966, Feynman expressed interest in running for the governor of California.
Enthusiasm for life is good stuff.
I bring this up because Feynman’s FBI files have recently been released under the wonderful Freedom of Information Act.
The next time I have a really bright but tough-to-reach student in physics or mathematics, I have to remember to buy them a copy of “Surely you’re joking”.