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 person and 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 humour which he kept all his life. As a child, he delighted in repairing radios and had a talent for engineering topics. 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 a PhD from Princeton University in 1942; his thesis advisor was John Archibald Wheeler. After Feynman completed his thesis on quantum mechanics, Wheeler showed it to Einstein, but the latter 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.
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 un-noticed, but no one knew who the figure in the far distance was, not knowing 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.
After the project, Feynman started working as a professor at Cornell University, where Hans Bethe, the formulator of nuclear fusion worked. However he felt uninspired there; despairing that he had burned out, he turned to more concrete 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, comforting. 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. Thus 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.
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 behaviour observable on a macroscopic scale. This helped enormously with the problem of superconductivity.
Weak decay, which shows itself in the decay of a neutron into an electron, a proton, and an anti-neutrino. Developed in collaboration with Murray Gell-Mann, the theory was of massive importance, and resulted in the discovery of a new force of nature (the weak interaction).
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 particle's spins and the range of coupling of the fundamental forces. But the quark model 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 the 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, at breakfast, he was again interrupted by a triumphant student, but he informed him that he was too late.
Feynman was a keen and influential popularizer of physics in both his books and lectures, notably a talk on nanotechnology called 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. Though he never actually wrote any books, 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 Lectures on Physics took a physicist, Robert B. Leighton, as full-time editor a number of years.
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 did not work only on physics, and had a large circle of friends from all walks of life, including the arts. He later married the British Gweneth Howarth, 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 would retain Feynman as a computational consultant during critical missions. One familiar coworker characterized Feynman as akin to Don Quixote at his desk, rather than at a computer workstation, ready to do battle with the windmills.
Feynman travelled a lot, 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 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. He also explains how he learned to play drums in acceptable samba style in Brazil (by persistence and practice). Such actions got him a reputation of eccentricity.
Feynman was requested to serve on the presidential Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster of 1986. 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 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 2 failures over the 100-odd flights of the Space Shuttle as of 2003. However good he was at engineering, Feynman always drew a careful distinction between science and technology.
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.
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. The first volume, for example, shows how to solve the N-body differential equation for the motion of the planets numerically, a feat which would have impressed Isaac Newton. The second volume is mainly on electrodynamics and electromagnetism. The third volume, on quantum mechanics, shows, for example, how the double-slit experiment contains the essential feature of quantum mechanics.
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 ISBN 0-262-56003-8
Quantum Electrodynamics ISBN 0-8053-2501-8
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
Statistical Mechanics ISBN 0-8053-2509-3
Theory of Fundamental Processes ISBN 0-8053-2507-7
Quantum Mechanics and Path Integrals (with Albert Hibbs)
Lectures on Gravitation 1995 ISBN 0-201-62734-5
Lectures on Computation
Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun
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! ISBN 0-393-01921-7
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 (by Christopher Sykes (Editor))
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
"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
Works about Feynman
There are several documentaries with and about Feynman, all made in Britain for the BBC's Horizon program, and shown in the United states by PBS's Nova:
'The Pleasure of Finding Things Out';
'The Quest for Tannu Tuva' (re-titled 'Last Journey of a Genius' on Nova);
'No Ordinary Genius', Parts 1 and 2 (one-hour version re-titled 'The Best Mind Since Einstein' on Nova)
A movie was made about Feynman's life in 1996. Called Infinity and starring Matthew Broderick, the movie focused on Feynman's relationship with his first wife, Arline, with his work on the Manhattan Project serving as a backdrop for what was essentially a love story. The film received mixed reviews, however, and did poorly at the box office.
Finally, the character of Feynman was portrayed by Alan Alda in a play called QED in 2001. The play was essentially a one-man show, with only brief appearances by other characters, portraying Feynman in his office at Caltech and covering many of the stories and anecdotes included in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?
"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."
"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."
"All fundamental processes are reversible."
"What does it mean, to understand? ... I don't know."
"What I cannot create, I do not understand."