Nobel laureate (physics, 1965), brilliant communicator, polymath, author, broadcaster, Lothario, bongocero, and one of the greatest minds of the century.
And that's only the start!
You might call Feynman the geeks' physicist. He is not as well-known outside scientific circles as Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein or even Niels Bohr, but he can easily stand beside any or all of them in the hall of fame of your choice. Indeed, Hawking describes Feynman as "the physicist's physicist," in his book, A brief History of Time.
In a sense, he surpasses them all, because of his wide range of interests. Feynman is noted in physics circles for re-formulating quantum mechanics in terms of quantum electrodynamics (QED)- a more successful theory of quantum fields, and his development of the Feynman diagram (a graphical way of describing interactions between sub-atomic particles). He is known in government circles for his incisive and revealing contributions to the Rogers Commission report into the Challenger disaster, in which he dramatically showed how rubber O-ring seals become brittleand lose their ability to sealat low temperatures. He is remembered by his colleagues on the Manhattan project as the man who worked out how to pick locks and break security, just to tease the security personnel. Mayan scholars remember his work on the Dresden Codex. He is remembered by thousands of physics students at Caltech as their personal hero, who imparted a little of his boundless and infectious enthusiasm for physics through his original and inspiring lectures.
pylon says, "perhaps you could mention his life-long obessesion with wanting to travel to Tuva (and the sad fact that he finally gained permission from the Soviets shortly after his death)"
He is, of course, remembered by his son Carl and adopted daughter Michelle, his sister Joan and wife Gweneth who died the following year.
Feynman was born in New York City on May 11th, 1918, to Lucille and Melville Feynman. He attended high school in Far Rockaway, New York. In 1939, as war was breaking out in Europe, Feynman received a B.S. from M I T, and the following year, he took up a Proctor Fellowship at Princeton University. During his two year stay at Princeton, he married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum. Feynman won his Ph D in 1942 with a thesis on the least action principle and started work on his ideas for a theory of QED.
His brilliance had been noted, however, and he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos under J. Robert Oppenheimer, alongside the greatest physicists in the free world.
Arline was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and spent much of her time in hospital in Albuquerque, while Feynman proved that he was an equal to all the brains at Los Alamos. He became friends with Hans Bethe and many of the other top scientists working there. He also added a patent for a nuclear submarine and an atom-powered aeroplane.
Feynman's character started to come out at Los Alamos. He developed a passion for code-breaking and safe-cracking while there, and made a habit of breaking into supposedly secure areas, leaving harmless messages, just to prove that the security was leaky. This developed into one of his many lifelong passions, later exhibited in his efforts to interpret the Mayan book known as the Dresden Codex.
As the war came to an end, and the Manhattan Project was shown to have been a success, Arline died in the Albuquerque hospital. Feynman is said to have been devastated.
Bethe persuaded Cornell University to grant Feynman an associate professorship in 1945, and he stayed there until 1951, using his time to formalise his theories of quantum electrodynamics. At the Shelter Island Conference of 1947, American physicists planned the development of atomic science in the USA, and Feynman first published the results of his work into QED.
He became a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1950, and was appointed a full professor the same year.
In 1959, he took up the post of Richard Chace Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics, at Caltech. He remained in this post until his death in 1988.
These were the golden days of Feynman's career. He made important contributions to the study of liquid helium, particle physics, and later, quantum chromodynamics, an extension of QED. He also discovered his gift for teaching.
The lectures now crystallised in the publication The Feynman Lectures on Physics (see below) were delivered to freshmen on Caltech's Physics courses in 1961 and 1962
In 1952, Feynman married Mary Louise Bell, who taught the history of decorative art at the university. The marriage did not last, they were divorced in 1956.
Feynman married for the third and final time in 1960. His bride was Gweneth Margaret Howarth. They had a son, Carl Richard (born 22nd April 1961), and later adopted a daughter, Michelle Catherine (born 13th August 1968). Gweneth survived her husband by only a few months.
In 1965, Feynman was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on QED, together with two colleagues, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger. Feynman came to regard the prize as more of a curse than a blessing.
Feynman collected a range of distinctions and awards during his long career, including the Albert Einstein Award (1954, Princeton); Einstein Award (Albert Einstein Award College of Medicine); the E.O.Lawrence Award from the Atomic Energy Commission (1962) and the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal (1973). In addition, Feynman was elected to be a Foreign Member of the UK?s Royal Society (1965) and won Caltech's Oersted Medal for Teaching (1972).
He died of a rare form of stomach cancer, on February 15, 1988.
Beyond the academic career
Reports of Feynman differ, from being intellectually arrogant, and not suffering fools gladly, to a modest man, slightly embarrassed at the celebrity status he achieved. It is clear that he had learned and could recall a vast range of facts and data. It is also clear that he had a great gift for understanding and explaining complex ideas. The power of his intellect cannot be disputed-not many are awarded Nobel prizes.
' ... he had an insatiable curiosity, deep love of nature, a passion for teaching, and high standards of scientific integrity. His interests extended to ants and paramecia; to hypnotism and the mixing of paints; to spinning dinner plates, locks, codes and ancient scripts. From his parents he learned to value and befriend nature, and he tried to communicate this strongly felt emotion through his teaching, and in later years also through painting. He was a classroom virtuoso, who judged his own understanding of the most subtle concepts by his ability to explain it to a novice?' (from Most of the Good Stuff See below)
One "C Dillon" remembers him in a different way:
'Way back in the late 70's/early 80's I worked for a small ballet company in San Francisco, working their sound system and sewing costumes. One of our choreographers decided to set Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" to live drum music (don't ask). So, for the next several weeks, we spent evenings in rehearsal with two drummers, one by the name of Richard Feynman. I thought him pleasant, funny, and collegial - and "rather intelligent"! It wasn't until years later, I discovered he was also a Nobel prize physicist! And my love for him continues...
There are many, many quotes that can be used to describe Feynman's work and ideas. My favourite is his penchant for asking, "any questions?" and when none came, shouting in feigned anger (but in all seriousness), "Well what are you here for then?" He believed in asking questions, in challenging and probing, and above all, in finding the answers. It was this drive to ask questions and get the answers which found him a place on the Rogers Commission following the Challenger disaster
The Challenger disaster and the Rogers Commission
I don't think this is the place to go into detail on the findings of the Rogers Commission. That's probably another node. Feynman wrote an appendix to the Rogers report, highlighting a series of failures in the technology and in the management of the project. In particular, he noted that the management thought the shuttle might fail at a rate of one in 100 000 launches. That would mean NASA could launch one shuttle a day for about 300 years before getting a single failure. The engineers, by contrast, thought one in 1000 was more realistic. A factor of 100. Two groups of people, working in adjacent offices, with such different perceptions of risk.
Feynman's concern was how the managers could possibly believe the technology was so reliable. His implied conclusion was that they deliberately underestimated the risks, in order to sell the idea of space travel to Congress and the tax-payers. Hence the conclusion that you can spin the facts as much as you like, but reality will eventually catch up with you.
Publications (books) by Feynman
Vol. 1. Quantum Mechanics
Vol. 2. Advanced Quantum Mechanics
Vol. 3. From Crystal Structure to Magnetism
Vol. 4. Electrical and Magnetic Behavior
Vol. 5. Feynman on Fundamentals: Energy and Motion
Vol. 6. Feynman on Fundamentals : Kinetics and Heat
Vol. 7. More classical mechanics Complements Volumes 5, 6 and 9 )
Vol. 8. Quantum Mechanics & Electrodynamics (Complements Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 10)
Vol. 9. Complements Volumes 5, 6 and 7 (Classical Mechanics)
Vol. 10. Complements Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8 (Quantum Mechanics & Electrodynamics)
Vol. 11. Feynman on Fundamentals: Mechanics - harmonic oscillators, linear systems, and the principle of statistical mechanics.
Vol. 12. Feynman on Fundamentals: Sound, includes a discussion of the wave equation, beats, modes, and harmonics.
Vol. 13. Feynman on Fields-contains sections on relativity, light scattering, relativistic effects in radiation, & magnetic fields
Vol. 14. Feynman on Electricity and Magnetism, Part 1
Vol. 15. Feynman on Electricity and Magnetism, Part 2
Vol. 16. Feynman on Electromagnetism (The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume 16)
Publications (books) ABOUT Feynman (and anthologies)