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Richard Feynman

Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) (surname pronounced "FINE-man") was one of the most influential American physicists of the 20th century, expanding greatly the theory of quantum electrodynamics. As well as being an inspiring lecturer and amateur musician, he helped in the development of the atomic bomb and was later a member of the panel which investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. For his work on quantum electrodynamics, Feynman was one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1965, along with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. He is also famous for his many adventures, detailed in the books Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, What Do You Care What Other People Think? and Tuva Or Bust!. Richard Feynman was, in many respects, an eccentric and a free spirit.


Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York; his parents were Jewish, although they did not practice Judaism as a religion. The young Feynman was heavily influenced by his father who encouraged him to ask questions in order to challenge orthodox thinking. His mother instilled in him a powerful sense of humor which he kept all his life. As a child, he delighted in repairing radios and had a talent for engineering. He kept experimenting on and re-creating mathematical topics, such as the half-derivative (a mathematical operator, which when applied twice in succession, resulted in the derivative of a function), utilizing his own notation, before entering college. (Thus, even while in high school, he was developing the mathematical intuition behind his Taylor series of mathematical operators.) His habit of direct characterization would sometimes disconcert more conventional thinkers; one of his questions when learning feline anatomy was: "Do you have a map of the cat?" When he spoke, it was with clarity.


Feynman received a bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939, and was named Putnam Fellow that same year. He recieved a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1942; his thesis advisor was John Archibald Wheeler. After Feynman completed his thesis on quantum mechanics, Wheeler showed it to Albert Einstein, but Einstein was unconvinced. While researching his Ph.D, Feynman married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, a terminal illness at that time; they were careful, and Feynman never contracted TB.

The Manhattan Project

At Princeton, the physicist Robert R. Wilson encouraged Feynman to participate in the Manhattan Project—the wartime U.S. Army project at Los Alamos developing the atomic bomb. He visited his wife in a sanitarium in Santa Fe on weekends, right up until her death in July 1945. He immersed himself in work on the project, and was present at the Trinity bomb test. Feynman claimed to be the only person to see the explosion without the dark glasses provided, looking through a truck windshield to screen out harmful ultraviolet frequencies. As a junior physicist, his work on the project was relatively removed from the major action, consisting mostly of administering the computation group of human computers in the Theoretical division, and then, with Nicholas Metropolis, setting up the system for using IBM punch cards for computation. Feynman actually succeeded in solving one of the equations for the project which were posted on the blackboards. However, they didn't "do the physics right" and Feynman's solution was not used in the project. Los Alamos was isolated; in his own words, "There wasn't anything to do there". Bored, Feynman found pastimes such as picking locks, breaking into safes and leaving mischievous notes to prove that the security at the lab was not as good as people would like to believe; as a drummer, he would find an isolated section of the mesa to drum Indian-style; "and maybe I would dance and chant, a little". These antics did not go unnoticed, but no one knew that "Injun Joe" was actually Feynman. He became a friend of laboratory head J. Robert Oppenheimer, who unsuccessfully tried to court him away from his other commitments to work at the University of California, Berkeley after the war.

Early Career: Cornell University

After the project, Feynman started working as a professor at Cornell University, where Hans Bethe, who proved that the Sun's source of energy was nuclear fusion, worked. However he felt uninspired there; despairing that he had burned out, he turned to less useful, but fun problems, such as analyzing the physics of a twirling, nutating dish, as it is being balanced by a juggler. As it turned out, this work served him in future researches. He was therefore surprised to be offered professorships from competing universities, eventually choosing to work at the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena, California, despite being offered a position near Princeton, at the Institute for Advanced Study (which included, at that time, such distinguished faculty as Albert Einstein). Feynman rejected the Institute on the grounds that there were no teaching duties. Feynman found his students to be a source of inspiration and also, during uncreative times, comfort. He felt that if he could not be creative, at least he could teach. Feynman is sometimes called the "Great Explainer"; he took great care when explaining topics to his students, making it a moral point not to make a topic arcane, but accessible to others. He opposed the rote learning and other teaching methods that emphasised form over function everywhere, from a conference on education in Brazil to state commission on school textbook selection. Clear thinking and clear presentation were fundamental prerequisites for his attention. It could be perilous to even approach him when unprepared, and he did not forget who the fools or pretenders were. On one sabbatical year, he returned to Newton's Principia to study it anew; what he learned from Newton, he also passed along to his students, such as Newton's attempted explanation of diffraction.

The Caltech Years

Feynman did much of his best work while at Caltech, including research in:

  • Quantum electrodynamics. The problem for which Feynman won his Nobel Prize involved the probability of quantum states changing. He helped develop a functional integral formulation of quantum mechanics, in which every possible path from one state to the next is considered, the final path being a sum over the possibilities.
  • Physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, where helium seems to display a lack of viscosity when flowing. Applying the Schrödinger equation to the question showed that the superfluid was displaying quantum mechanical behavior observable on a macroscopic scale. This helped enormously with the problem of superconductivity.
  • A model of weak decay, which showed that the current coupling in the process is a combination of vector and axial. (An example of weak decay is the decay of a neutron into an electron, a proton, and an anti-neutrino.) Although E.C. George Sudharsan and Robert Marshak developed the theory nearly simultaneously, Feynman's collaboration with Murray Gell-Mann was seen as the seminal one, the theory was of massive importance, and the weak interaction was neatly described.

He also developed Feynman diagrams, a bookkeeping device which helps in conceptualising and calculating interactions between particles in spacetime. This device allowed him, and now others, to work with concepts which would have been less approachable without it, such as time reversibility and other fundamental processes. These diagrams are now fundamental for string theory and M-theory, and have even been extended topologically. Feynman's mental picture for these diagrams started with the hard sphere approximation, and the interactions could be thought of as collisions at first. It was not until decades later that physicists thought of analyzing the nodes of the Feynman diagrams more closely. The world-lines of the diagrams have become tubes to better model the more complicated objects such as strings and M-branes. From his diagrams of a small number of particles interacting in spacetime, Feynman could then model all of physics in terms of those particles' spins and the range of coupling of the fundamental forces. The quark model, however, was a rival to Feynman's parton formulation. Feynman did not dispute the quark model; for example, when the 5th quark was discovered, Feynman immediately pointed out to his students that the discovery implied the existence of a 6th quark, which was duly discovered in the decade after his death. After the success of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman turned to quantum gravity. By analogy with the photon, which has spin 1, he investigated the consequences of a free massless spin 2 field, and was able to derive the Einstein field equation of general relativity, but little more. Unfortunately, at this time he became exhausted by working on multiple major projects at the same time, including his Lectures in Physics. While at Caltech, Feynman was asked to "spruce up" the teaching of undergraduates. After three years devoted to the task, a series of lectures was produced, eventually becoming the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics, which are a major reason that Feynman is still regarded by most physicists as one of the greatest teachers of physics ever. Feynman later won the Oersted Medal for teaching, of which he seemed especially proud. His students competed keenly for his attention; once he was awakened when a student solved a problem and dropped it in his mailbox at home; glimpsing the student sneaking across his lawn, he could not go back to sleep, and he read the student's solution. That morning his breakfast was interrupted by another triumphant student, but Feynman informed this student that he was too late. Feynman was a keen and influential popularizer of physics in both his books and lectures, notably a seminal 1959 talk on nanotechnology called There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom. Feynman offered $1000 prizes for two of his challenges in nanotechnology. He was also one of the first scientists to realise the possibility of quantum computers. Many of his lectures and other miscellaneous talks were turned into books such as The Character of Physical Law and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. He would give lectures which his students would annotate into books, such as Statistical Mechanics and Lectures on Gravity. The Feynman Lectures on Physics took a physicist, Robert B. Leighton, as full-time editor a number of years.

Personal Life

Feynman's first wife died while he was working on the Manhattan project. He married a second time, to Mary Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas in June, 1952; this marriage was brief and unsuccessful. Feynman later married Gweneth Howarth from the United Kingdom, who shared his enthusiasm for life. Besides their home in Altadena, California, they had a beach house in Baja California. They remained married for life, and had a child of their own, Carl, and adopted a daughter, Michelle. Feynman had a great deal of success teaching Carl using discussions about ants and Martians as a device for gaining perspective on problems and issues; he was surprised to learn that the same teaching devices did not apply for Michelle. Mathematics was a common interest for father and son; they both entered the computer field as consultants. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory retained Feynman as a computational consultant during critical missions. One coworker characterized Feynman as akin to Don Quixote at his desk, rather than at a computer workstation, ready to do battle with the windmills. According to Professor Steven Frautschi, a colleague of Feynman, Feynman was the only person in the Altadena region to buy flood insurance after the massive 1978 fire, predicting correctly that the fire's destruction would lead to land erosion, causing mudslides and flooding. The flood occurred in 1979 after winter rains and destroyed multiple houses in the neighborhood. Feynman traveled a great deal, notably to Brazil, and near the end of his life schemed to visit the obscure Russian land of Tuva, a dream that, due to Cold War bureaucratic problems, never succeeded. During this period he discovered that he had a form of cancer, but, thanks to surgery, he managed to hold it off. Feynman did not work only on physics, and had a large circle of friends from all walks of life, including the arts. He took up painting at one time and enjoyed some success under a pseudonym, culminating in an exhibition dedicated to his work. He learned to play drums (frigideira) in acceptable samba style in Brazil by persistence and practice, and participated in a samba "school". Such actions earned him a reputation of eccentricity. Feynman had very liberal views on sexuality and was not ashamed of admitting it. In Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he explains that he enjoyed hostess bars and topless dancing, and drew a decoration for a massage parlor. In addition, he admitted to being a cannabis user as well as having experimented with LSD.

Feynman's Later Years

Feynman was requested to serve on the presidential Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster of 1986. Fed clues from a source with inside information, Feynman famously showed on television the crucial role in the disaster played by the booster's O-ring flexible gas seals with a simple demonstration using a glass of ice water and a sample of o-ring material. His opinion of the cause of the accident differed from the official findings, and were considerably more critical of the role of management in sidelining the concerns of engineers. After much petitioning, Feynman's minority report was included as an appendix to the official document. The book What Do You Care What Other People Think? includes stories from Feynman's work on the commission. His engineering skill is reflected in his estimate of the reliability of the Space Shuttle (98%), which is unhappily reflected in the two failures over the 100-odd flights of the Space Shuttle as of 2003. The cancer returned in 1987, with Feynman entering hospital a year later. Complications with surgery worsened his condition, whereupon Feynman decided to die with dignity and not accept any more treatment. He died on February 15, 1988. It has been announced that Feynman will be honored on a U.S. postage stamp in 2005.

Works by Feynman

The Feynman Lectures on Physics are perhaps his most accessible work for anyone with an interest in physics. He produced it lecturing to undergraduates in 1962. As the news of the lectures' accessibility grew, a large number of professional physicists began to drop in on them. A professional physicist, Robert B. Leighton, then edited them into book form. The work has endured, and is useful to this day.

Books on Physics

  • Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics : The 1986 Dirac Memorial Lectures
  • Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher
  • Six Not So Easy Pieces: Einstein's Relativity, Symmetry and Space-Time
  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics (with Leighton and Sands). 3 volumes 1964, 1966. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 63-20717
  • The Character of Physical Law
  • Quantum Electrodynamics
  • QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
  • Statistical Mechanics
  • Theory of Fundamental Processes
  • Quantum Mechanics and Path Integrals (with Albert Hibbs)
  • Lectures on Gravitation
  • Lectures on Computation
  • Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun
  • The Feynman Processor : Quantum Entanglement and the Computing Revolution

Popular Works by and about Feynman

  • Feynman, Richard Phillips. (1999). The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. Perseus Publishing.
  • The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
  • Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
  • What Do You Care What Other People Think?
  • Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (by James Gleick)
  • Most of the Good Stuff: Memories of Richard Feynman (edited by Laurie M. Brown and John S. Rigden)
  • No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman (edited by Christopher Sykes)
  • Tuva Or Bust! (by Ralph Leighton)
  • QED and the Men Who Made It: Dyson, Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga (Princeton Series in Physics) (by Silvan S. Schweber)
  • Selected Papers on Quantum Electrodynamics (Fermi, Jordan, Heisenberg, Dyson, Weisskopf, Lamb, Dirac, Oppenheimer, Retherford, Pauli, Bethe, Bloch, Klein, Schwinger, Tomonaga, Feynman, Wigner, and many others) (by Julian Schwinger (Editor))
  • Richard Feynman: A Life in Science (by John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin)
  • The Beat of a Different Drum: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (by Jagdish Mehra)
  • Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life (by Leonard Mlodinow)
  • Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman - Edited by Michelle Feynman