Richard Feynman

feynman

Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) was an American physicist known for his work in quantum mechanics. For his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman, jointly with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He developed a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams.

During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world. He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb and was a member of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing, and introducing the concept of nanotechnology.

Feynman was a keen popularizer of physics through both books and lectures, notably a 1959 talk on top-down nanotechnology called ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’ and ‘The Feynman Lectures on Physics.’ Feynman also became known through his semi-autobiographical books (‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!’ and ‘What Do You Care What Other People Think’?) and books written about him, such as ‘Tuva or Bust!’

He was born Richard Phillips Feynman in Far Rockaway, Queens. His family originated from Russia and Poland; both of his parents were Ashkenazi Jewish. They were not religious and by his youth Feynman described himself as an ‘avowed atheist.’ Feynman (in common with the famous physicist Edward Teller) was a late talker; by his third birthday he had yet to utter a single word. The young Feynman was heavily influenced by his father, Melville, who encouraged him to ask questions to challenge orthodox thinking. From his mother, Lucille, he gained the sense of humor that he had throughout his life. As a child, he delighted in repairing radios and had a talent for engineering. His younger sister Joan also became a professional physicist.

By 15, he had learned differential and integral calculus. Before entering college, he was experimenting with and re-creating mathematical topics, such as the half-derivative, utilizing his own notation. In high school, he was developing the mathematical intuition behind his Taylor series of mathematical operators.

His habit of direct characterization sometimes rattled more conventional thinkers; for example, one of his questions when learning feline anatomy was ‘Do you have a map of the cat?’ (referring to an anatomical chart).

He applied to Columbia University, but was not accepted. Instead he attended MIT, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1939, and in the same year was named a Putnam Fellow. While there, Feynman took every physics course offered, including a graduate course on theoretical physics while only in his second year.

He obtained a perfect score on the graduate school entrance exams to Princeton University in mathematics and physics—an unprecedented feat—but did rather poorly on the history and English portions. Attendees at Feynman’s first seminar included Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, and John von Neumann. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1942; his thesis advisor was John Archibald Wheeler. Feynman’s thesis applied the principle of stationary action to problems of quantum mechanics, inspired by a desire to quantize the Wheeler–Feynman absorber theory of electrodynamics, laying the groundwork for the ‘path integral’ approach and Feynman diagrams, and was titled ‘The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics.’

According to Feynman biographer James Gleick, ‘This was Richard Feynman nearing the crest of his powers. At twenty-three … there was no physicist on earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science. It was not just a facility at mathematics (though it had become clear … that the mathematical machinery emerging from the Wheeler–Feynman collaboration was beyond Wheeler’s own ability). Feynman seemed to possess a frightening ease with the substance behind the equations, like Albert Einstein at the same age, like the Soviet physicist Lev Landau—but few others.’

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 build it before Nazi Germany developed their own bomb.

He was assigned to Hans Bethe’s theoretical division, and impressed Bethe enough to be made a group leader. He and Bethe developed the Bethe–Feynman formula for calculating the yield of a fission bomb, which built upon previous work by Robert Serber.

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 very dark glasses or welder’s lenses provided, reasoning that it was safe to look through a truck windshield, as it would screen out the harmful ultraviolet radiation.

As a junior physicist, he was not central to the project. The greater part of his work was administering the computation group of human computers in the Theoretical division (one of his students there, John G. Kemeny, later went on to co-write the computer language BASIC). Later, with Nicholas Metropolis, he assisted in establishing the system for using IBM punched cards for computation. Feynman succeeded in solving one of the equations for the project that were posted on the blackboards. However, they did not ‘do the physics right’ and Feynman’s solution was not used.

Feynman’s other work at Los Alamos included calculating neutron equations for the Los Alamos ‘Water Boiler,’ a small nuclear reactor, to measure how close an assembly of fissile material was to criticality. On completing this work he was transferred to the Oak Ridge facility, where he aided engineers in devising safety procedures for material storage so that criticality accidents (for example, due to sub-critical amounts of fissile material inadvertently stored in proximity on opposite sides of a wall) could be avoided. He also did theoretical work and calculations on the proposed uranium hydride bomb, which later proved not to be feasible.

Feynman was sought out by physicist Niels Bohr for one-on-one discussions. Most physicists were too in awe of Bohr to argue with him. Feynman had no such inhibitions, vigorously pointing out anything he considered to be flawed in Bohr’s thinking. Feynman said he felt as much respect for Bohr as anyone else, but once anyone got him talking about physics, he would become so focused he forgot about social niceties.

Due to the top secret nature of the work, Los Alamos was isolated. In Feynman’s own words, ‘There wasn’t anything to do there.’ Bored, he indulged his curiosity by learning to pick the combination locks on cabinets and desks used to secure papers. Feynman played many jokes on colleagues. In one case he found the combination to a locked filing cabinet by trying the numbers a physicist would use (it proved to be 27–18–28 after the base of natural logarithms, e = 2.71828…), and found that the three filing cabinets where a colleague kept a set of atomic bomb research notes all had the same combination. He left a series of notes as a prank, which initially spooked his colleague, Frederic de Hoffmann, into thinking a spy or saboteur had gained access to atomic bomb secrets. On several occasions, Feynman drove to Albuquerque to see his ailing wife in a car borrowed from Klaus Fuchs, who was later discovered to be a real spy for the Soviets, transporting nuclear secrets in his car to Santa Fe.

On occasion, Feynman would find an isolated section of the mesa to drum in the style of American natives; ‘and maybe I would dance and chant, a little.’ These antics did not go unnoticed, and rumors spread about a mysterious Indian drummer called ‘Injun Joe.’ He also became a friend of laboratory head J. Robert Oppenheimer, who unsuccessfully tried to court him away from his other commitments after the war to work at the University of California, Berkeley.

Feynman alludes to his thoughts on the justification for getting involved in the Manhattan project in ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.’ As mentioned earlier, he felt the possibility of Nazi Germany developing the bomb before the Allies was a compelling reason to help with its development for the US. However, he goes on to say that it was an error on his part not to reconsider the situation when Germany was defeated. In the same publication, Feynman also talks about his worries in the atomic bomb age, feeling for some considerable time that there was a high risk that the bomb would be used again soon so that it was pointless to build for the future. Later he describes this period as a ‘depression.’

Following the completion of his Ph.D. in 1942, Feynman held an appointment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as an assistant professor of physics. The appointment was spent on leave for his involvement in the Manhattan project. In 1945, he received a letter from Dean Mark Ingraham of the College of Letters and Science requesting his return to UW to teach in the coming academic year. His appointment was not extended when he did not commit to return. In a talk given several years later at UW, Feynman quipped, ‘It’s great to be back at the only university that ever had the good sense to fire me.’

After the war, Feynman declined an offer from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, despite the presence there of such distinguished faculty members as Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel, and John von Neumann. Feynman followed Hans Bethe, instead, to Cornell University, where Feynman taught theoretical physics from 1945 to 1950. During a temporary depression following the destruction of Hiroshima by the bomb produced by the Manhattan Project, he focused on complex physics problems, not for utility, but for self-satisfaction. One of these was analyzing the physics of a twirling, rocking dish as it is moving through the air. His work during this period, which used equations of rotation to express various spinning speeds, soon proved important to his Nobel Prize-winning work. Yet because he felt burned out, and had turned his attention to less immediately practical but more entertaining problems, he felt surprised by the offers of professorships from renowned universities.

Despite yet another offer from the Institute for Advanced Study, Feynman rejected the Institute on the grounds that there were no teaching duties: Feynman felt that students were a source of inspiration and teaching a diversion during uncreative spells. Because of this, the Institute for Advanced study and Princeton University jointly offered him a package whereby he could teach at the university and also be at the Institute. That he also turned this down suggests the effects of his depression. Somewhat later, feeling better, Feynman accepted an offer from the California Institute of Technology — and as he says in his book ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!’ — because a desire to live in a mild climate had firmly fixed itself in his mind while installing tire chains on his car in the middle of a snowstorm in Ithaca.

Feynman has been called the ‘Great Explainer.’ He gained a reputation for taking great care when giving explanations to his students and for making it a moral duty to make the topic accessible. His guiding principle was that if a topic could not be explained in a freshman lecture, it was not yet fully understood. Feynman gained great pleasure from coming up with such a ‘freshman-level’ explanation, for example, of the connection between spin and statistics. What he said was that groups of particles with spin 1/2 ‘repel,’ whereas groups with integer spin ‘clump.’ This was a brilliantly simplified way of demonstrating how Fermi–Dirac statistics and Bose–Einstein statistics evolved as a consequence of studying how fermions and bosons behave under a rotation of 360°. This was also a question he pondered in his more advanced lectures and to which he demonstrated the solution in the 1986 Dirac memorial lecture. In the same lecture, he further explained that antiparticles must exist, for if particles only had positive energies, they would not be restricted to a so-called ‘light cone.’

He opposed rote learning or unthinking memorization and other teaching methods that emphasized form over function. He put these opinions into action whenever he could, 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 even to approach him when unprepared, and he did not forget the fools or pretenders.

Feynman did significant work while at Caltech, including research in quantum electrodynamics. The theory for which Feynman won his Nobel Prize is known for its accurate predictions. This theory was begun in the earlier years during Feynman’s work at Princeton as a graduate student and continued while he was at Cornell. This work consisted of two distinct formulations, and it is a common error to confuse them or to merge them into one. The first is his path integral formulation, and the second is his Feynman diagrams. Both formulations contained his sum over histories method in which every possible path from one state to the next is considered, the final path being a sum over the possibilities (also referred to as sum-over-paths). The second formulation of quantum electrodynamics (using Feynman diagrams) was specifically mentioned by the Nobel committee. The logical connection with the path integral formulation is interesting. Feynman did not prove that the rules for his diagrams followed mathematically from the path integral formulation. Students everywhere learned and used the powerful new tool that Feynman had created. Eventually computer programs were written to compute Feynman diagrams, providing a tool of unprecedented power. It is possible to write such programs because the Feynman diagrams constitute a Formal language with a grammar.

Feynman diagrams are a bookkeeping device which help in conceptualizing and calculating interactions between particles in spacetime, notably the interactions between electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons. This device allowed him, and later others, to approach time reversibility and other fundamental processes. 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. Feynman famously painted Feynman diagrams on the exterior of his van.

From his diagrams of a small number of particles interacting in spacetime, Feynman could then model all of physics in terms of those particles’ spins and the range of coupling of the fundamental forces. In the mid 1960s, physicists believed that quarks were just a bookkeeping device for symmetry numbers, not real particles. The Stanford linear accelerator deep inelastic scattering experiments of the late 1960s showed, analogously to Ernest Rutherford’s experiment of scattering alpha particles on gold nuclei in 1911, that nucleons (protons and neutrons) contained point-like particles which scattered electrons. It was natural to identify these with quarks. These electrically neutral particles are now seen to be the gluons. Feynman did not dispute the quark model; for example, when the fifth quark was discovered in 1977, Feynman immediately pointed out to his students that the discovery implied the existence of a sixth quark, which was duly discovered in the decade after his death.

In the early 1960s, Feynman exhausted himself by working on multiple major projects at the same time, including a request, while at Caltech, to ‘spruce up’ the teaching of undergraduates. After three years devoted to the task, he produced a series of lectures that eventually became the Feynman Lectures on Physics, one reason that Feynman is still regarded as one of the greatest teachers of physics. He wanted a picture of a drumhead sprinkled with powder to show the modes of vibration at the beginning of the book. Outraged by many rock and roll and drug connections that could be made from the image, the publishers changed the cover to plain red, though they included a picture of him playing drums in the foreword.

His students competed keenly for his attention; he was once awakened when a student solved a problem and dropped it in his mailbox; glimpsing the student sneaking across his lawn, he could not go back to sleep, and he read the student’s solution. The next morning his breakfast was interrupted by another triumphant student, but Feynman informed him that he was too late.

In 1974, Feynman delivered the Caltech commencement address on the topic of cargo cult science, which has the semblance of science but is only pseudoscience due to a lack of ‘a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty’ 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.’

In the late 1980s, Feynman played a crucial role in developing the first massively parallel computer, and in finding innovative uses for it in numerical computations, in building neural networks, as well as physical simulations using cellular automata (such as turbulent fluid flow), working with Stephen Wolfram at Caltech. His son Carl also played a role in the development of the original Connection Machine engineering; Feynman influencing the interconnects while his son worked on the software.

Feynman diagrams are now fundamental for string theory and M-theory, and have even been extended topologically (topology is a branch of mathematics concerned with geometric configurations. The world-lines of the diagrams have developed to become tubes to allow better modeling of more complicated objects such as strings and membranes. However, shortly before his death, Feynman criticized string theory in an interview: ‘I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything,’ he said. ‘I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation—a fix-up to say, ‘Well, it still might be true.” These words have since been much-quoted by opponents of the string-theoretic direction for particle physics.

Feynman played an important role on the Presidential Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger disaster. Feynman devoted the latter half of his book ‘What Do You Care What Other People Think?’ to his experience on the Rogers Commission, straying from his usual convention of brief, light-hearted anecdotes to deliver an extended and sober narrative. Feynman’s account reveals a disconnect between NASA’s engineers and executives that was far more striking than he expected. His interviews of NASA’s high-ranking managers revealed startling misunderstandings of elementary concepts. He concluded that the NASA management’s space shuttle reliability estimate was fantastically unrealistic. He warned in his appendix to the commission’s report, ‘For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.’ He also rebuked some mathematicians for their exclusivity, saying ‘I have great suspicion that [mathematicians] don’t know that this stuff is wrong and that they’re intimidating people.’

Though raised Jewish and born to Ashkenazi parents, Feynman himself was not only atheist, but distanced himself from being labeled Jewish even on ethnic grounds. He routinely refused to be included in lists or books that classified people by race. He asked to not be included in Tina Levitan’s, ‘The Laureates: Jewish Winners of the Nobel Prize,’ writing, ‘To select, for approbation the peculiar elements that come from some supposedly Jewish heredity is to open the door to all kinds of nonsense on racial theory,’ and adding ‘…at thirteen I was not only converted to other religious views but I also stopped believing that the Jewish people are in any way ‘the chosen people.”

While researching for his Ph.D., Feynman married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum (often spelled Arlene). She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, but she and Feynman were careful, and he never contracted it. She succumbed to the disease in 1945. He was married a second time in 1952, to Mary Louise Bell; this marriage was brief and unsuccessful: ‘He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.’

He later married Gweneth Howarth who shared his enthusiasm for life and spirited adventure. Besides their home in Altadena, California, they had a beach house in Baja California, purchased with the prize money from Feynman’s Nobel Prize, his one third share of $55,000. They remained married until Feynman’s death. They had a son, Carl, in 1962, and adopted a daughter, Michelle, in 1968.

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 were not useful with Michelle. Mathematics was a common interest for father and son; they both entered the computer field as consultants and were involved in advancing a new method of using multiple computers to solve complex problems—later known as parallel computing. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory retained Feynman as a computational consultant during critical missions. One co-worker characterized Feynman as akin to Don Quixote at his desk, rather than at a computer workstation, ready to do battle with the windmills.

Feynman traveled widely, notably to Brazil, where he gave courses at the CBPF (Brazilian Center for Physics Research) and near the end of his life schemed to visit the Russian land of Tuva, a dream that, because of Cold War bureaucratic problems, never became reality. The day after he died, a letter arrived for him from the Soviet government giving him authorization to travel to Tuva. Out of his enthusiastic interest in reaching Tuva came the phrase ‘Tuva or Bust’ (also the title of a book about his efforts to get there), which was tossed about frequently amongst his circle of friends in hope that they, one day, could see it firsthand.

Feynman took up drawing at one time and enjoyed some success under the pseudonym ‘Ofey,’ culminating in an exhibition dedicated to his work. He learned to play a metal percussion instrument (frigideira) in a samba style in Brazil, and participated in a samba school.

In addition, he had some degree of synesthesia for equations, explaining that the letters in certain mathematical functions appeared in color for him, even though invariably printed in standard black-and-white.

Feynman tried LSD during his professorship at Caltech. Somewhat embarrassed by his actions, Feynman largely sidestepped the issue when dictating his anecdotes; he mentions it in passing in ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,’ which describes only marijuana and ketamine experiences at John Lilly’s famed sensory deprivation tanks, as a way of studying consciousness. Feynman gave up alcohol when he began to show early signs of alcoholism, as he did not want to do anything that could damage his brain—the same reason given for his reluctance to experiment with LSD.

Also in ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,’ he gives advice on the best way to pick up a girl in a hostess bar. At Caltech, he used a nude/topless bar as an office away from his usual office, making sketches or writing physics equations on paper placemats. When the county officials tried to close the place, all visitors except Feynman refused to testify in favor of the bar, fearing that their families or patrons would learn about their visits. Only Feynman accepted, and in court, he affirmed that the bar was a public need, stating that craftsmen, technicians, engineers, common workers ‘and a physics professor’ frequented the establishment. While the bar lost the court case, it was allowed to remain open as a similar case was pending appeal.

Feynman developed two rare forms of cancer, Liposarcoma and Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia, dying shortly after a final attempt at surgery for the former in 1988, aged 69. His last recorded words are noted as ‘I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.’

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