Richard Feynman

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Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988) last name pronounced "fine-man", was one of the most influential physicists of the twentieth century, expanding greatly the knowledge of quantum electrodynamics. As well as being an inspiring lecturer and 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. He is also famous because of his many adventures detailed in the books Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman and What do you care what other people think?!.


Born in 1918, Manhattan, 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 humour which he kept all his life.

After finishing school he attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before moving on to Princeton as a graduate. While researching his Ph.D, he married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum, who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Still at Princeton, the physicist Robert 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 hospital on weekends, right up until her death in July 1945. Immersing himself in work on the project, it was finished a few months later and he was present at the testing. Feynman claimed to be the only person to look at the bomb explosion without the dark glasses provided, looking through a truck windshield to screen out the harmful ultraviolet frequencies.

After the project, Feynman started working as a professor at Cornell University. However he was unhappy there, feeling uninspired. He was therefore surprised to be offered professorships from competing universities, eventually chosing to work at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which included at that time such distinguished faculty as Albert Einstein.

Feynman did much of his best work at this time, 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 path 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 behaviour which displayed itself on a large, human interactivable, scale. This helped enourmously with the problem of superconductivity.

He also developed Feynman diagrams, which helped in conceptualising and calculating of interactions between particles.

From 1950s, Feynman was professor of physics with the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). At this time he was asked to help in the teaching of undergraduates. After three years devoted to the task a series of lectures (eventually becoming the famous The Feynman Lectures on Physics) was produced. Feynman later won the Oersted medal for teaching, which he seemed to be especially proud of.

Feynman was a keen and influential popularizor of physics in both his lectures and books. Notably a talk on nanotechnology called Plenty of Room at the Bottom. He was also one of the first scientists to realise the possibility of quantum computers. Books written by him include The Character of Physical Law and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.

Feynman married twice more, first to Mary Lou (surname?) in the 1950s, which turned out to be unsuccessful and brief, and secondly to the British Gweneth Howarth, who shared his enthusiasm for life. They remained married for life, and had child of their own, Carl, and adopted a daughter, Michelle.

Feynman travelled a lot at this period in his life, for example to Brazil and the obscure Russian land of Tuva. During this period he discovered that he had a form of cancer, but, thanks to surgery, he managed to hold it off.

Feynman was requested to serve on the presidential comission which investigated the Challenger disaster of 1986, and after some reflection, agreed to do so. Tactfully 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 seals with a simple demonstration using a glass of ice water and a sample of the o-ring material.

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. He lives on through the books Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and What do you care what other people think?! which display his quirky sense of fun and interest in the world.

Books by Feynman

  • Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman
  • What do you care what other people Think?!
  • Six Easy Pieces
  • Six Not So Easy Pieces
  • Lectures on Physics
  • The Character of Physical Law
  • QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter

He also wrote a mathematical proof of planetary motion based entirely on newtonian physics. His reason was that Newton's was too hard to understand(!)

There was also a movie made about him, focusing on his life and involvement with the Manhattan Project, called "Infinity" starring Matthew Broderick.