Steve Jobs vs Richard Feynman: on Maxwell's equations and generosity

The very moment Steve Jobs passed away, elegies started pouring down on the web in one overwhelming voice depicting him as a visionary genius that has changed our lives forever. Or has he?

"Marketing was his great strength" says Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in his BBC News tribute ( Indeed, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he launched the "Think Different" campaign aimed at establishing Apple as one of the technical giants. The ads, both printed and on TV, ran for several years showing iconic figures from the 20th century as diverse as Ghandi and Einstein. Among the chosen few was Richard Feynman, Nobel prize awarded physicist and one of the most famous scientists of all times, who appeared for the first time on the printed ads from 1998.

Ten years earlier Feynman had died of cancer at the age of 69, leaving behind many contributions to science, from seminal results in theoretical physics to the introduction of novelty concepts such as quantum computing and nanotechnology. But, most of all, he was a brilliant and motivating teacher whose curiosity and generosity were proverbially contagious. He had plenty awareness of the one thing time tells us: life changing contributions are built, step by step, upon a sustained sharing of knowledge.

In The Feynman Lectures on Physics, published in 1964, he makes the following prediction: "From a long view of the history of mankind - seen from, say, ten thousand years from now - there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the 19th century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics." These laws, known as Maxwell's equations, were at the spring of modern science and technology, from relativity and quantum mechanics to television and communications. This would be beautiful by itself, but the story of the discovery takes it up a notch, as it perfectly illustrates the slow unfolding of scientific and technological research.

The equations, which Maxwell intertwined and gave meaning to, had been partially established by Gauss, Faraday and Ampère in the previous decades. The calculations led him, among other things, to the theoretical conclusion that light was an electromagnetic wave, a fact experimentally confirmed by Heinrich Hertz in 1886, a few years after Maxwell's death. Only at that point, thanks to the curiosity and the generosity of these men, many before them and many to follow, were we able to pave the road that led us to the internet and its amazing range of possibilities. And we won't need ten thousand years to acknowledge the establishment of Maxwell's equations as the most important event of the 19th century. We can check it as of today: you, by reading this post, are providing the very experimental confirmation of the fact.

At this year's TEDx Feynman's Vision: The Next 50 Years, Danny Hillis gave the account of a conversation he had with his close friend while visiting him at Caltech, in the summer of 1987 ( They took a long walk on the nearby mountains and while Feynman kept telling anecdotes about his battle against cancer, providing more details on the stage of the illness, it became clear to Hillis that the end was near:
Feynman - "Hey, what's bugging you?"
Hillis - "I'm sad because I'm realizing you're about to die."
Feynman - "Yeah, that bugs me sometimes too. But it's actually not as bad as you think. By the time you get to be my age and you've told as many stories as I have, a lot of what's good about you is kinda rubbed off on other people. (...) So, I know you don't exactly see this now, but you'll see that although I will be dead, I won't be completely gone."

Let us now fast forward to another summer walk, this time in 2004, where Steve Jobs is asking Walter Issacson to write is biography ( Jobs was extremely clever and, like Feynman, he was aware that life changing events are generosity's harvest and that their development spreads over decades and centuries. As such, he knew that his contribution to mankind would get engulfed in the ripples of time for what it's worth: not a lot. He opened the 1997 presentation of the "Think Different" campaign (Steve Jobs talks about the Crazy Ones - who think different.) with these words: "This is a very complicated world, it's a very noisy world and we're not gonna get a chance to get people to remember much about us. (...) And so, we have to be really clear on what we want them to know about us." He was talking about Apple's brand strategy but, when confronted with the possibility of an eminent death, he applied the principle to himself and devised the marketing campaign for his everlasting memory. And, boy, was he good: the biography is due to come out at the end of this month, the rights to the movie have already been sold and his Stanford commencement address on Youtube has been shared countless times.

But he should have known better. As Richard Feynman died in peace, certain that his lifetime generosity would keep him alive for many years to come, Steve Jobs struggled both with pancreatic cancer and the anguish of oblivion. A sad way to spend one's life dawn.
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