Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918 - February 15, 1988) last name pronounced "fine-man", was one of the most influential physicists of the 20th 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. For his work on quantum electrodynamics, Feynman was one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1965. 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!
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.
Feynman attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before moving on to Princeton as a graduate. While researching his Ph.D, he married his first wife, Arlene Greenbaum, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, a terminal illness at that time.
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 hospital on weekends, right up until her death in July 1945. Immersing himself in work on the project, he 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.
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 choosing 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 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 which displayed itself on a large, human interactivable, 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. Later collaborating with Murray Gell-Mann, the theory was of massive importance, and resulted in the discovery of a new law of nature (the weak interaction).
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 was produced, ventually becoming the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman later won the Oersted medal for teaching, which he seemed especially proud of.
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. 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 Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas in June, 1952, which was unsuccessful and brief, and second to British Gweneth Howarth, who shared his enthusiasm for life. They remained married for life, and had a child of their own, Carl, and adopted a daughter, Michelle.
Feynman travelled a lot at this time, notably to Brazil, and 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 was requested to serve on the presidential 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 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 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.
|Table of contents|
2 Popular works by and about Feynman
3 Audio Recordings
4 External links
Books on Physics
Popular works by and about Feynman
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, Arlene, 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?