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Dr. Richard P. Feynman

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Dr. Richard P. Feynman


There exists a man in the annals of modern physics who defies almost all description. His name is Richard P. Feynman, and he is equally known for dozens of accomplishments which often seem to have very little to do with physics. Bongo drummer is nearly as good a description as any, for playing the bongos was one of those accomplishments. In a feat of rhythmic skill that is rare amongst even the most prestigious classically trained musicians, Feynman taught himself to sustain two-handed polyrhythms of seven against six and even thirteen against twelve (Gleick, 16). He had a feeling for rhythm that allowed him to do everything from hold an audience spellbound with his improvisational bongo drumming (16), to annoy his college roommates with an incessant, almost absentminded drumming of his fingers (65).

Richard Feynman was also much more than a bongo drummer, or even a mere physicist. He had the uncanny ability to see a puzzle and come to its inevitable solution in the time it takes an average person to blink. Feynman was asked to serve on the Rogers Commission investigation of the Challenger explosion in 1986 (Slone, Challenger). After reluctantly agreeing to join the commission, he began to truly sink his teeth into the problem. By going directly to the people who designed and built the shuttle, Feynman was able to learn just exactly how dangerous shuttle flight actually could be. The official NASA figure for the chance of shuttle failure was 1 in 100,000 (Challenger). In the course of his research, Feynman came to the conclusion that a more accurate number was actually 1 in 100 (Challenger). It was because of this willingness to do the necessary research and look beyond the management level of NASA to the guts of the engineering that Feynman was able to discover the true cause of the explosion. Cutting through political correctness and public relations concerns, Feynman conducted a simple experiment with a cup of ice water in front of a meeting of the commission, thereby proving that the material the O-ring was made of was incapable of handling the stress of takeoff at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature on the day of the launch (Challenger).

It might be interesting to wonder about the origins of a man with such an incredible ability to isolate the truth and clearly relate it to others. To find those origins one need look no farther than the eastern coastline of the United States of America. Richard P. Feynman was born to Melville and Lucille Feynman on the eleventh of May, 1918, in the small town of Far Rockaway in Manhattan, New York (Feynman, Surely). His family, including himself, his parents, and his younger sister Joan, lived comfortably though they were not especially well-to-do (Slone, Bio). His father had a profound influence on his childhood and his decision to enter the world of physics. Even before he was born, his father had declared, “if the child turned out to be a boy, then he would grow up to be a scientist” (Bio). Melville Feynman started helping his own prophecy along at an early age, bringing home blue and white bathroom tiles and using them to teach his young son about patterns, the most basic concept of mathematics (Feynman, Care). He would line them up on the tray of the high chair in patterns of ever increasing complexity in an attempt to expose the child to the only aspect of mathematics he could understand at his age (Care). The young Feynman would delight in the setting up and eventual knocking down of the patterns father and son created with the little blue and white bathroom tiles (Care).

When Feynman was older he learned some of the most fundamental truths in science from his father. One of these was imparted to him during walks he and his father would take in the Catskill Mountains in the summer (Sykes). Instead of having him memorize the names of all the birds, his father instead showed him how to observe the birds and test his theories about their behavior (Sykes). Why does the bird peck at its own feathers? Is it because they were ruffled during flight? To find out, look to see if the bird pecks its feathers more just after landing than it does after it has been on the ground for some time. While his father’s explanations for the results of their experiments may not have always been exact in detail, the very act of performing the experiments taught Feynman how to think like a scientist (Sykes). In the case of the bird, Feynman learned that knowing the bird’s name only tells you something about the humans who named it, and tells you nothing at all about the bird (Sykes). Knowing what something is called and what it is are two distinctly different things.

One of the staples of Feynman’s childhood was his constant fiddling with radios. The radio had by this time become the equivalent of what the television is today, an obvious presence in almost every home. By the practical experience of taking them apart and looking at the innards, the young Feynman quickly learned the basics of how radios worked (Surely). He managed to turn this hobby into a paying job while the Depression was in full swing when he began to fix other people’s broken radios (Surely). Feynman would amaze his clients as he fixed their radios merely by thinking. His greatest accomplishment in the radio fixing business was a situation in which the radio would make an ungodly howl when first turned on, but would then warm up and operate properly (Gleick, 46). Feynman paced back and forth in front of the radio as its owner looked on in confusion, trying to reason out what would cause the radio to behave in such a way (46). Eventually, he pulled out two of the radio’s tubes and put them back in the opposite order (47). Reversing the order of the tubes reversed the order in which they warmed up, eliminating the shriek that had been caused by some extraneous signal (47). Even as a boy, Feynman’s puzzle solving abilities were in full bloom.

By the time Feynman was in high school he had already soaked up more math than most students today get by the time they are in college. He was an avid member of his high school’s math team, thriving on the timed mathematical competitions at the meets (Slone, Anecdotes). Trigonometry fascinated him and while learning about it on his own from a book called Trigonometry for the Practical Man, he devised an alternate notation system that, to him, made much more sense than the standard one (Surely). When he reached a Trigonometry class in high school, he was pleased to find that most of his proofs were correct and several of them were even more concise than those in the textbook (Surely). He was convinced that his symbols were just as good, if not better, than the standard notation that he began to encounter in school (Surely). He quickly learned, however, that there was a value to the standard system, as confusing as it might look at first. If he wanted to talk intelligently to his peers about math, he needed to be using the same notation as them (Surely). In other words, he needed to speak the same language.
This fascination with math extended beyond high school. Feynman was accepted to the Massachusetts Institution of Technology and he attended with the thought of majoring in mathematics, which he later changed to physics when he became frustrated with the apparent uselessness of pure mathematics. “What’s it good for?”he wanted to know, and shortly thereafter he switched to the physics department (Gleick, 52). College life at MIT was a time of social blossoming for Feynman. Living with a fraternity, his natural predilection for crafty practical jokes found a perfect home. In one particularly stunning instance, Feynman managed to capitalize on a prank pulled by other members of the fraternity in order to perpetuate his own (Surely).

When he had woken very early one morning and wandered downstairs, he found that some ambitious jokers had taken the door to one of the study rooms off its hinges and anonymously spirited it away (Surely). Finding this too great an opportunity to pass up, Feynman promptly removed the room’s only other door and hid it in the basement (Surely). When the two missing doors were discovered later in the morning, it was assumed that the same people had taken both and the pressure was put on to find out who the pranksters were (Surely). Feynman began his ruse by outright admitting to stealing the doors and even telling his fellows exactly where the one he actually had stolen was hidden, which of course the other members of the fraternity refused to believe (Surely). When it became apparent who the original pranksters were and that they had in fact only taken one door, the search was resumed (Surely). A week of fruitless searching later, Feynman made a point of announcing with much exaggeration that whoever had stolen the second door was obviously a crafty genius and worthy of the entire fraternity’s respect, and begging that person to just leave an anonymous note letting them know where the door was (Surely). He even passed a fraternity word of honor inquiry into the matter by answering honestly and again not being believed (Surely). That night he left a note with a picture of the door’s hiding spot, and the door was returned to it’s rightful place (Surely). Nobody could figure out who had done it until he finally owned up to it some time later (Surely).

It was also while he was at college that Feynman first encountered the problem that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize (Feynman, Nobel Lecture). It was then that he came to the conclusion that “the fundamental problem of the day was that the quantum theory of electricity and magnetism was not completely satisfactory”(Nobel Lecture). He worked on this problem on and off for years, through his graduate work at Princeton and his time with the Manhattan Project in the mid 1940s. Whenever he was stumped and unable to make progress on his current work, he would return to his attempts to make Quantum Electrodynamics behave reasonably. This ongoing fascination led him through several related theories and downright blind allies, but he came out the other side having worked up a system of looking at Quantum Electrodynamics that astounded his colleagues (Nobel Lecture). Despite the fact that he had yet to work out all of the details, he was pressured into publishing his work (Nobel Lecture). In his Nobel Lecture he pointed out that this was fortuitous because even at that time, to his knowledge, some of those details still had not been worked out to anyone’s satisfaction (Nobel Lecture). After years of working with the subject, Feynman was awarded one third of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, sharing it with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger, for work on the development of the space-time view of Quantum Electrodynamics (Nobelprize.com).

Another of Feynman’s greatest contributions to physics is the Feynman Diagram. Feynman Diagrams are simple drawings that provide a roadmap to the interactions of particles. There are three basic actions the diagrams can depict, from which all the possible interactions of photons and electrons can be described (Feynman, QED, 85). These actions are, “A photon goes from place to place,” “An electron goes from place to place,” and, “An electron emits or absorbs a photon” (85). One of the simplest Feynman diagrams (see below) shows all three of these possible actions (Slone, Diagrams).


The wiggly line between points 5 and 6 shows the first of the actions, a photon traveling from place to place. The straight lines from 1 to 5, from 5 to 3, from 2 to 6, and from 6 to 4, with direction specified by the arrow heads, show instances of the second action, the motion of electrons from place to place. The vertices at points 5 and 6 represent the third action, the emission or absorption of a photon by an electron. The event as a whole consists of one electron entering the diagram at 1, emitting a photon at 5, and traveling out of the diagram on an altered path towards 3, while a second electron enters the diagram at 2, absorbs that same photon at 6, and continues out of the diagram on its own altered path towards 4 (Diagrams).

These diagrams allow physicists to notate and talk about complex interactions by simplifying them to sequences of these three basic actions. Each of the actions has an arrow in any particular diagram, showing its amplitude (QED, 85). That amplitude can be calculated by following formulas that obey the basic laws of nature (89). More importantly, the diagram above is only one way in which the two electrons can end up traveling between points 1and 3, and 2 and 4 (94). Feynman Diagrams, when drawn properly and taking into account the various laws of conservation, can show the various possibilities for how an event in nature can occur (Slone, Diagrams). Feynman himself often wondered, “how do the electrons and photons KNOW how to calculate all these possibilities, which we and our big supercomputers can only barely begin to calculate?” (Diagrams).

Theoretical physics was not Feynman’s only niche in the physics world, and possibly not the one he considered his most important. He was a respected and well-loved teacher as well. While at the California Institute of Technology he ran a freshmen physics seminar called Physics X (Slone, Turner). Physics X was a non-credit course that simply consisted of Professor Feynman talking to whoever showed up about whatever they felt like at the time. In the words of Marc Turner, who attended the seminar in the mid-1980s,

“The amazing thing about this class was that there was no curriculum. He would show up to class, pick up a piece of chalk and ask if there were any questions. Whatever topics were raised were the subjects of discussion. The questions did not have to be strictly physics related - he would derive equations for the operation of a flute and then later relate how he managed to open the safe at Los Alamos one night in order to prove that the security wasn't good enough for protecting their notes” (Slone, Turner).

According to David Adler, who attended Physics X in 1979, “this was an opportunity for freshman at Caltech to ask Feynman questions, or, more often, as the year went along, to listen to his stories” (Slone, Adler). Feynman seemed to have as much of a love for imparting his knowledge as he had for searching out new knowledge.

Feynman also seemed interested in the very methods by which such knowledge was imparted. In the preface to his Lectures on Physics he discusses what he saw as the success, or lack there of, of his own lecture series in reaching the students (Feynman, Lectures, preface). He makes several observations about attempts to keep the material fresh and interesting and about the best order in which to present certain topics (Lectures, preface). In an address to the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association in 1966 in New York City, Feynman admitted “I also am a science teacher. I have much experience only in teaching graduate students in physics, and as a result of the experience I know that I don't know how to teach” (Slone, What is Science?). He spoke of how he was fascinated that recently it had been decided that there no longer needed to be a graduate course in elementary Quantum Mechanics. Apparently, such things were now being taught to undergraduates. He ultimately attributed this change to the growing effectiveness of the students’ earlier training, saying:

“When I was a student, they didn't even have a course in quantum mechanics in the graduate school; it was considered too difficult a subject. When I first started to teach, we had one. Now we teach it to undergraduates. We discover now that we don't have to have elementary quantum mechanics for graduates from other schools. Why is it getting pushed down? Because we are able to teach better in the university, and that is because the students coming up are better trained”(What is Science?).

Feynman went on to admit that even he could not come up with a satisfactory, concise definition of what science really is, or the best method in which to teach it. In lieu of a philosophical dissertation on the matter, he began to tell the audience how he was taught science as a child by his father (What is Science?). This was the only way he could express what science and the teaching thereof meant to him, something that was apparently of great interest and personal significance in his life.

Feynman’s family life as an adult held both tragedy and joy. His first wife, Arline Greenbaum, had been a childhood friend and was a perfect compliment for him. Where he had science and mathematics, she had music and art. But Arline suffered from Tuberculosis, a disease that carried a significant health risk and social stigma at the time, and even Feynman’s parents were set against their marriage (Gleick, 149). Regardless of the difficulties, soon after Feynman received his doctoral degree from Princeton the two were married in a city office on Staten Island with neither family nor friends in attendance (151). She followed him when he joined the Manhattan Project, and passed away in a sanatorium nearby in Los Alamos on June 16, 1946 (202).

Feynman’s second marriage, to Mary Louise Bell, also ended less than happily. It was a union that his friends and family had never understood and one that even he was uneasy about at times, to the point where he had decided fairly early in their married relationship that they should never have children (Gleick, 292). They were divorced four years later, an event which had a moment in the limelight of the national press due to the terms of the separation (293). By agreement Feynman had confessed to “extreme cruelty,” the exact nature of which the pundits could not keep from speculating upon (293). Perhaps he kept practicing his drumming too loudly? Or maybe he spent too much time working calculus problems (293).

Feynman and Gweneth Howarth, the woman who would become his third wife, had an unusual courtship. She was from Yorkshire, and had been traveling her way around the world when they met on a beach near his hotel in Geneva where he was staying for a conference (Gleick, 341). While he was embroiled in a failed relationship with a married lover and she was busy keeping her options open with a few possible boyfriends, he offered to help her move to America by supporting her as his maid (341). It was the beginning of a friendship that would last for the rest of his life. She finally made it to America in the summer of 1959, and after a year of pretending to be casual friends they were married in Pasadena, California (346).

Richard and Gweneth Feynman had one son, Carl, and adopted a daughter, Michelle. In raising his children, Feynman had the opportunity to pass along the joy for science his own father had given him. He found that his son Carl loved to play a game in which he would come up with elaborate stories about people who lived in strange places that he would then describe and Carl would try to guess the location of (Sykes). If the people were surrounded by a forest of blue tree-like things without leaves, they were obviously living in the blue rug on Carl’s bedroom floor (Sykes). In this way Feynman was able to teach his son about the world and have fun together playing the game at the same time (Sykes). Oddly enough, he found that his daughter never liked the game, instead preferring that he read her stories (Sykes). This difference struck Feynman as analogous to the fundamental difficulty one has in teaching, the fact that no one method of instruction will reach every student all the time with equal effectiveness (Sykes).

Richard Feynman made an indelible impression on the world around him. His insatiable love for new adventures and puzzles and his unique way of thinking about things gave him an edge of pure genius that allowed him to solve some of the greatest mysteries of our time. His last great adventure, the one he never completed, was to search out and visit a small, unknown country by the name of Tuva (Slone, Leighton). Only vaguely remembered from a boyhood stamp collection, Tuva held an inescapable fascination for Feynman (Slone, Leighton). A quest that began in 1977 and was unfortunately stymied by the political state of the world at the time finally ended when the long awaited permission was granted for Feynman and company to visit Tuva. The permission came too late for Feynman himself to make the journey, for on February 15, 1988, he succumbed to the cancer he had been fighting on and off for a decade (Care).

The wonderful phenomenon that was Dr. Richard P. Feynman is perhaps best remembered here with an oft used bongo pun, as in these words written after his death by Julian Schwinger, his contemporary, colleague, fellow Nobel Laureate, and at times his preeminent rival. Richard Feynman was “An honest man, the outstanding intuitionist of our age, and a prime example of what may lie in store for anyone who dares to follow the beat of a different drum” (Gleick, 16).

“Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” - Richard P. Feynman

Works Cited

Both figures used in this paper are taken from Feynman.com, and are used without permission.

Feynman, Richard P. “The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics.” Richard P. Feynman - Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1965. [Online: http://nobelprize.org/physics/laureates/1965/feynman-lecture.html]. The Nobel Foundation and Nobelprize.org, 2004.

Feynman, Richard P., Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands. The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Reading Massachusetts: Addison Wesley Publishing Company, Inc., 1964.

Feynman, Richard P. QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Feynman, Richard P., and Ralph Leighton. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. Copyrighted in 1985 by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton. Unabridged audio book produced in 1997 by Blackstone Audio Books, Inc.

Feynman, Richard P., and Ralph Leighton. What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. Copyrighted in 1988 by Gweneth Feynman and Ralph Leighton. Unabridged audio book produced in 2001 by Books on Tape, Inc.

Gleick, James. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Slone, J. Eric. Feynman Online. [Online: http://www.feynman.com]. Scientific Consulting Services International, 2002.

Sykes, Christopher, producer. Horizon: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Television interview copyrighted by the British Broadcasting Company in 1981.

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