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Richard Feynman’s Mischievous Nobel Prize Wager

Fifteen dollars of irreverence and honor, or how to avoid “occupational disease.”

Twenty-four years ago, the world lost the great Richard Feynman — champion of curiosity, graphic novel hero, no ordinary genius. Among Feynman’s most memorable and beloved qualities was his singular blend of irreverence and honor, which shines in this wonderful anecdote from Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman (public library), a priceless collection of more than 40 years of Feynman’s letters and a fine addition to my favorite famous correspondence.

Immediately after he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, Feynman made a wager with MIT Professor Viktor Weisskop, who was convinced that The Great Explainer would succumb to a career in administration — or what Feynman once referred to in a letter as an “occupational disease.” A man of his word, Feynman sent Weisskop the following note a decade later:

Prof. W. Weisskopf
Physics Department
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dear Professor:

I have found the document describing our wager and find that you gave me too much money so here’s $15 back. For your records, may I state in writing that as of this date, January 6, 1976, I am not holding, nor during the last ten years have I held, a responsible position as defined in the contract of the wager. Therefore I consider that the wager has been paid by Professor Weisskopf and that’s that!

Richard P. Feynman

The wager contract itself:

—On this the FIFTEENTH DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SIXTY FIVE, at a Luncheon given at the Laboratories of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), Meyrin, Geneva, the following WAGER was made between Professor Viktor F. WEISSKOPF and Professor Richard P. FEYNMAN.

The terms of the WAGER are as follows:

—Mr. FEYNMAN will pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. WEISSKOPF if at any time during the next TEN YEARS (i.e., before the THIRTY FIRST DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE), the said Mr. FEYNMAN has held a ‘responsible position.’

—Conversely, if on the THIRTY FIRST DAY of DECEMBER of the YEAR ONE THOUSAND NINE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY FIVE, the said Mr. FEYNMAN shall have held or be holding no such position, Mr. WEISSKOPF will be deemed to have forfeited his WAGER and will be in duty bound to pay the sum of TEN DOLLARS to Mr. FEYNMAN.

—For the purpose of the aforementioned WAGER, the term ‘responsible position’ shall be taken to signify a position which, by reason of its nature, compels the holder to issue instructions to other persons to carry out certain acts, notwithstanding the fact that the holder has no understanding whatsoever of that which he is instructing the aforesaid persons to accomplish.

—In case of contention or of non-fulfillment of the aforementioned conditions, the sole arbiter shall be Mr. Giuseppe COCCONI.


Richard P. Feynman
Viktor F. Weisskopf
Signed and witnessed: G. Cocconi

Here’s to a lifetime of never holding a “responsible position.”

Complement Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track with Feynman on the meaning of life, the key to science in 63 seconds, and the role of scientific culture in modern society.

Published February 15, 2012




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