Richard Feynman

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search
Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman
"What I cannot create, I do not understand" - Richard P. Feynman
Born May 11, 1918
Queens, New York
Died February 15, 1988
Los Angeles, California

Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918February 15, 1988) (surname pronounced FINE-man; /ˈfaɪnmən/ in IPA) 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 Shin-Ichiro 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.



Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman

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, Melville Feynman, 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 received a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1942; his thesis advisor was John Archibald Wheeler. Feynman's thesis applied the principle of stationary action to problems of quantum mechanics, laying the ground work for the "path integral" approach and Feynman diagrams. 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

Feynman (center) with Robert Oppenheimer (right) relaxing at a Los Alamos social function during the top-secret Manhattan Project.
Feynman (center) with Robert Oppenheimer (right) relaxing at a Los Alamos social function during the top-secret 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. Feynman said he was persuaded to join this effort to help make sure that Nazi Germany did not develop nuclear weapons first. He visited his wife in a sanitarium in Albuquerque 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 remote 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. John G. Kemeny, later president of Dartmouth College, worked for Feynman at this time. Feynman actually succeeded in solving one of the equations for the project which were posted on the blackboards. However, they did not "do the physics right" and Feynman's solution was not used in the project.

Feynman's other work at Los Alamos included calculating neutron equations for the Los Alamos "Water Boiler", a small nuclear reactor at the desert lab, in order to measure how close a particular assembly of fissile material was to becoming critical. After this work he was transferred to the Oak Ridge facility, where he aided engineers in calculating safety procedures for material storage (so that inadvertent criticality accidents could be avoided). He also did crucial theoretical and calculation work on the theoretical uranium-hydride bomb, which was later proven to be infeasible.

Feynman was also sought out by the more senior physicist Hans Bethe for one-on-one discussions of physics theory. Bethe later explained to Feynman that most physicists were too respectful of his reputation to contradict him, but that Feynman seemed to have no inhibitions about disagreeing with him and offering contradicting ideas, which he needed to progress in his thinking. Feynman said he felt just as much respect for Bethe's reputation as anyone else, but that once anyone got him talking about physics, he couldn't help but forget about mere social considerations and just openly try to figure out how the physics worked.

Feynman's ID badge photo from Los Alamos.
Feynman's ID badge photo from Los Alamos.

Los Alamos was isolated; in his own words, "There wasn't anything to do there". Bored, Feynman indulged his mischievous sense of humour to mock a self-important director (one of the few non-scientists on site). The director's only important responsibility was for document security. He irritated Feynman and other scientists with petty rules for handling documents. Feynman embarrassed the director by breaking into the document safe and leaving a mischievous note. The Director responded by procuring a series of ever more sophisticated safes, each time thinking finally to have outsmarted Feynman, only to discover in short order a new note in each new safe.

As a drummer, Feynman 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. Another major factor in his decision was just a desire to live in a mild climate, a goal he seized on while having to put snow chains on his car's wheels in the middle of a snowstorm in Ithaca, New York.

 Feynman the "Great Explainer": The Feynman Lectures on Physics found an appreciative audience beyond the undergraduate community.
Feynman the "Great Explainer": The Feynman Lectures on Physics found an appreciative audience beyond the undergraduate community.

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. His principle was that if a topic could not be explained in a freshman lecture, it was not fully understood yet. Feynman gained great pleasure from coming up with such a "freshman level" explanation of the connection between spin and statistics (that groups of particles with spin 1/2 "repel", wheras groups with spin 1 , 2"clump"), a question he pondered in his own lectures and which he solved in the 1986 Dirac memorial lecture He opposed rote learning and other teaching methods that emphasized form over function, everywhere from a conference on education in Brazil to a 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 wereBet91.

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:

  • 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.

He also developed Feynman diagrams, a bookkeeping device which helps in conceptualizing and calculating interactions between particles in spacetime, notably the interactions between electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons. 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. Feynman famously painted Feynman diagrams on the exterior of his van.

Feynman 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 physicsFeyFP 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 moreFeyLG. Unfortunately, at this time he became exhausted by working on multiple major projects at the same time, including his Lectures in Physics.

Feynman during his famous cargo cult science speech at the Caltech 1974 commencement address.
Feynman during his famous cargo cult science speech at the Caltech 1974 commencement address.

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 top-down 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 realize 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 often annotated into books, such as Statistical Mechanics and Lectures on Gravity. The Feynman Lectures on Physics took two physicists, Robert B. Leighton and Matthew Sands as full-time editors a number of years. Even though they were not adopted by the universities as textbooks, the books continue to be bestsellers, as they provide a deep understanding about physics. As of 2005, The Feynman Lectures on Physics have now sold over 1.5 million copies in English, an estimated 1 million copies in Russian, and an estimated half million copies in other languages.

In 1974 Feynman delivered the Caltech commencement address on the topic of cargo cult science, work having the semblance of science but which is only pseudoscience due to a lack of utter integrity on the part of the scientist. He instructed the graduating class that "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that."

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 biological child, Carl in 1962, and adopted a daughter, Michelle, in 1968FeyM.

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 succeededLei91. 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 the pseudonym "Ofey", 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 gives advice on the best way to pick up a girl in a hostess bar and drew a decoration for a massage parlor. His favorite place was nude/topless bars, which he used to visit six times a week. In addition, he admitted to being a cannabis user as well as having experimented with LSD and Ketamine. Feynman also enjoyed bike riding and being interviewed.

Feynman's later years

Feynman served on the commission investigating the 1986 Challenger disaster. "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."
Feynman served on the commission investigating the 1986 Challenger disaster. "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."

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, a clamp, and a sample of o-ring material. His opinion of the cause of the accident differed from the official findings and was 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 the 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. Reportedly, his final words were "I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring." He and his wife Gweneth, who died in 1989, are buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Altadena, California.

Commemorations of Feynman

Feynman was honored on a U.S. postage stamp in 2005 as one of four American scientists. Along with Barbara McClintock, Josiah Willard Gibbs, and John von Neumann, the set of self-adhesive 37-cent stamps were made available on May 4, 2005 in a pane of 20 stamps with five stamps for each. His stamp, sepia-toned, features a photograph of a 30-something Feynman and eight small Feynman diagrams.

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. They were edited and supplemented in 2005 with "Feynman's Tips on Physics: A Problem-Solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics" by Michael Gottlieb and Ralph Leighton, Robert B. Leighton's son, with support from Kip Thorne and several other physicists.

Books on physics

Popular works by and about Feynman

  • ^  Feynman, Richard Phillips. (1999). The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. Perseus Publishing. (Paperback Edition ISBN 0738201669)
  • ^  The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
  • ^  Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (1985) ISBN 0-393-01921-7
  • ^  What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988) ISBN 0-553-17334-0
  • ^  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) ISBN 0-446-69251-4
  • ^  Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman - Edited by Michelle Feynman (Basic Books, ISBN 0-7382-0636-9, April 2005).
  • ^  Hans A. Bethe, The Road from Los Alamos, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1991, ISBN 0671740121 p.241
  • ^  The art of Richard P. Feynman: Images by a curious character - Edited by Michelle Feynman (G+B Arts International, ISBN 2-88449-047-7 (1995).

Audio recordings

  • Safecracker Suite (a collection of drum pieces interspersed with Feynman telling anecdotes)
  • Six Easy Pieces (original lectures upon which the book is based)
  • Six Not So Easy Pieces (original lectures upon which the book is based)
  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics: The Complete Audio Collection
    • Quantum Mechanics, Volume 1
    • Advanced Quantum Mechanics, Volume 2
    • From Crystal Structure to Magnetism, Volume 3
    • Electrical and Magnetic Behavior, Volume 4
    • Feynman on Fundamentals: Energy and Motion, Volume 5
    • Feynman on Fundamentals: Kinetics and Heat, Volume 6
    • Feynman on Science and Vision, Volume 7
    • Feynman on Gravity, Relativity and Electromagnetism, Volume 8
    • Basic Concepts in Classical Physics, Volume 9
    • Basic Concepts in Quantum Physics, Volume 10
  • Samples of Feynman's drumming, chanting and speech are included in the song "Kargyraa Rap (Durgen Chugaa)" on the album Back Tuva Future by Kongar-ol Ondar. The hidden track on this album also includes excerpts from lectures without musical background.


Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
  • "Dear Mrs. Chown, Ignore your son's attempts to teach you physics. Physics isn't the most important thing. Love is. Best wishes, Richard Feynman."
  • "Physics is to math what sex is to masturbation."
  • "Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."
  • "Mathematics is not real, but it feels real. Where is this place?"
  • "The same equations have the same solutions." (Thus when you have solved a mathematical problem, you can re-use the solution in another physical situation. Feynman was skilled in transforming a problem into one that he could solve.)
  • "When you are solving a problem, don't worry. Now, after you have solved the problem, then that's the time to worry."
  • "The wonderful thing about science is that it's alive."
  • "All fundamental processes are reversible."
  • "What does it mean, to understand? ... I don't know."
  • "What I cannot create, I do not understand." (Taken from his chalkboard after his death.)
  • "Know how to solve every problem that has ever been solved." (Taken from his chalkboard after his death.)
  • "But I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose—which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me."
  • "To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature ... If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in."
  • "I cannot define the real problem, therefore I suspect there's no real problem, but I'm not sure there's no real problem." (about Quantum Mechanics)
  • "I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring" (last words).

Quotations About Feynman

  • The "Feynman Problem Solving Algorithm", as facetiously observed by a colleague, Murray Gell-Mann in the NY Times, was:
  1. write down the problem;
  2. think very hard;
  3. write down the answer.
This verse is for Richard Feynman, He was not a simple simon.

See also

External links

Personal tools