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Richard Feynman

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! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?.

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 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.

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 Trinity bomb test. Feynman claimed to be the only person to look at the 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 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 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 enormously 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 popularizer 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 Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas in June, 1952, 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 a 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 schemed to visit the obscure Russian land of Tuva, but, due to Cold War bureacratic 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, 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. 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

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)
  • The Character of Physical Law
  • QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter
  • Statistical Mechanics
  • Quantum Mechanics and Path Integrals (with Hibbs)
  • Lectures on Gravitation
  • Lectures on Computation
  • Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun

Popular works by and about Feynman

  • The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist
  • The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
  • Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

  • What Do You Care What Other People Think?
  • Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (by James Gleick)
  • 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)

Audio Recordings

  • "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

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?

See also: Physics, Tuva

External links

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