This is another article I’ve “contributed” to my college magazine.
In this world, there are two kinds people, my friend. One who live boring, insignificant lives where they achieve minor accomplishments in one field and affect no one outside their social circle. And who live. Richard Philips Feynman was of the latter kind. Theoretical Physicist, Author, Sketch Artist, Bongo Player, Safe-Cracker, Administrator and most of all, a really fun guy, in a life that spanned 70 years, he accomplished what any normal person would require 7 lives to do.
Born on May 11 1918 in Queens, New York to a moderately religious Jewish family, the young Richard Feynman made a name for himself by fixing radios during the depression, where any service was far too expensive for the common man.
In 1935, he joined MIT, where he took every physics course being offered. An avid prankster, he made friends very easily, but nobody was fooled by his silliness; they all knew that “Dick”, as he was called, is a genius. He joined Princeton University to pursue his Master’s and Ph.D. Halfway through his thesis, he heard about the United States’ top secret project to develop the atomic bomb, called the Manhattan Project. Feynman’s friend Robert F Wilson persuaded him to become a part of the project, where he interacted with many renowned scientists. In a famous incident, Neils Bohr discussed his ideas with Feynman only, knowing that Feynman was the only person there who wasn’t in awe of Bohr’s reputation and would be ready to counter-argue or point out any flaws in his ideas. Feynman said he felt just as much respect for Bohr’s reputation as anyone else, but that once anyone got him talking about physics, he couldn’t help but forget about anything else.
Working in the secret base at Los Alamos, Feynman would often feel bored due to the lack of any social activities. Hence, he learned to crack safes and pick combination locks. In one of Feynman’s pranks, he found the combination to a locked filing cabinet by trying the numbers a physicist would use (it was 27-18-28 after the base of natural logarithms, e=2.71828…). On finding that the three filing cabinets in which a colleague kept a comprehensive set of atomic bomb research notes all had the same combination, he left a series of mischievous notes as a prank, which initially spooked his colleague into thinking a spy or saboteur had actually gained access to atomic bomb secrets. He would also find a corner of the base to play Red Indian drums, which led to the spreading of a rumor that a ghost drummer called ‘Injun Joe’ haunted the base.
After the war, Feynman joined Cornell University but soon felt bored and disinterested, as if he’s experiencing a burnout. At this point of time, he began to concentrate on some “interesting” physics problems, such as the analysis of a rotating dish (which eventually led him to the theory of QED, for which he won a Nobel Prize!). At this time, he received offers from many reputed institutes, including the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, which was the workplace of Albert Einstein. Feynman refused these offers as they cut down on interaction time with students, which he believed was extremely important.
Feynman finally decided to join the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), due to the fact that he didn’t like the cold weather at Cornell. It was at Caltech that Feynman reached his peak, producing his best works, such the theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), the physics of superfluidity of liquid helium, which helped in the problem of superconductivity and collaborated with Murray Gell-Mann on developing an accurate model of weak decay. He also developed his famous Feynman diagrams, a technique through which complex equations on the interactions of particles in space-time could be conceptualized diagrammatically.
In the early 1960s, Feynman wrote his famous Lectures on Physics, which are regarded by many as some the best texts ever written. This also solidified Feynman’s reputation as not only one of the best physicists ever, but also as one of the best teachers of physics ever. In 1965, Feynman won the Nobel Prize for Physics, but he regarded his Oersted Medal for teaching as a greater achievement. Feynman gave many lectures throughout the 70s and 80s on a variety of topics including the phenomenon of “Cargo Cult Science” where scientific integrity is lost in an effort to be correct and is believed to have contributed in the development of the world’s first parallel processing systems. Feynman also gave the idea of Quantum Computing decades before it became known popularly.
But Feynman also had his fair share of tragedy in life, losing his first wife, Arlene, to tuberculosis in 1945. He married again briefly in 1952, but the relationship was unsuccessful. He later married Gweneth Howarth, with whom he spent the rest of his life. He had a son, Carl, in 1962 and adopted a daughter, Michelle, in 1968. His son took to science, becoming a Computer engineer, but his daughter hated anything to do with Maths.
Throughout his life, Feynman traveled a lot, notably to Brazil where he gave a famous speech criticizing their education system based on rote learning. One would imagine that he would’ve done the same in India, as our system is no different. Feynman also dreamed of visiting the remote Siberian locality of Tuva and tried unsuccessfully to do so. Apart from physics Feynman was also a sketch artist who worked under the pseudonym ‘Ofey’ and even had an exhibition of his works. He also translated Mayan hieroglyphics and while in Brazil, played frigideira drums in samba style during the Rio carnival. Feynman was fascinated by the phenomenon of sensory deprivation and even tried marijuana, ketamine and LSD to experience altered consciousness. He gave up drinking alcohol after he showed early signs of alcoholism, saying that he didn’t want to do anything that would harm his brain. Feynman had a very liberal view on sexuality, visiting topless bars regularly and even giving a chapter on how to pick up girls in a bar in his biography.
In his later years, Feynman served on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster in 1986. He contracted cancer once, but managed to fight it off. 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.
He contracted cancer once again in 1988, but refused any treatment, preferring to die with dignity instead. He died on February 15th, 1988. His last words were, “I’d hate to die twice, It’s so boring!”
Richard Feynman was also a prolific writer, authoring books such as his best-selling memoirs, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! It’s sequel What Do You Care What Other People Think? And Tuva or Bust! He wrote very few research papers for a scientist of his stature.
His famous quotes include, ‘What I Cannot Create, I Do Not Understand’, which was written on his blackboard after his death, ‘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’ and ‘When playing Russian roulette the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next’, about the Challenger disaster. About him, Murray Gell-Mann commented to the New York Times that, “the Feynman Algorithm to solve a problem is:
1. Write down the problem
2. Think very hard
3. Write down the answer.
Richard Philips Feynman was a true genius. The greatest scientist since Einstein and a really fun guy; he changed the perception of the scientist being a serious, snotty person who can’t recognize fun even when it hits him in the face. He changed the way we perceived the universe and lived life to the fullest. A great teacher. Role model and icon; Surely you’re a Genius, Mr. Feynman!