Richard Phillips Feynman was one of the most influential American
physicists of the 20th century, expanding greatly the theory of
quantum electrodynamics, quark theory, and the physics of the superfluidity
of supercooled liquid helium. "He reconstructed almost the
whole of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics in his own way, deriving
a way to analyze atomic interactions through simple diagrams (now
known as Feynman diagrams), a method that is still used widely."
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, along with
Julian Schwinger and Shin-Ichiro Tomonaga. Feynman wrote only
37 research papers in his career (a remarkably small number for
such a prolific researcher), but many consider the two discoveries
he made at Caltech, superfluidity and the prediction of quarks,
also worthy of the Nobel Prize. Apart from pure physics, Dr. Feynman
is also credited with the revolutionary concept and early exploration
of quantum computing, and first publicly envisioning nanotechnology,
i.e. the ability to mass produce atomic-scale machines.
was a keen and influential popularizer of physics in both his
books and lectures, notably a seminal 1959 talk on top-down nanotechnology
called There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom and his transcribed
lectures, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a 3-volume set which
has become a classic undergraduate text. Known for his insatiable
curiosity, gentle wit, brilliant mind and playful temperament,
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!. As well as being an inspiring
lecturer, bongo player, notorious practical joker, and decipherer
of Mayan hieroglyphics, Richard Feynman was, in many respects,
an eccentric and a free spirit. He was an entrepreneur in the
sense that, like Leonardo da Vinci before him, he pursued many
independent paths, breaking new ground as he went.
was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York; his parents were Jewish
and attended temple every Friday, although they were unritualistic
in their practice of Judaism as a religion. The young Feynman
was heavily influenced by his father, Melville Feynman, who encouraged
him to ask questions in order to challenge orthodox thinking.
His mother instilled in him a powerful sense of humor which he
kept all his life.
a child, he delighted in repairing radios and had a talent for
engineering. At school he was bright, but his measured IQ was
merely above average at 124, which he would scoff at later. By
age 15, he had mastered differential and integral calculus. He
kept experimenting on and re-creating mathematical topics, such
as the half-derivative (a mathematical operator, which when applied
twice in succession, resulted in the derivative of a function),
utilizing his own notation, before entering college.
even while in high school, he was developing the mathematical
intuition behind his Taylor series of mathematical operators.
His habit of direct characterization would sometimes disconcert
more conventional thinkers; for example, one of his questions
when learning feline anatomy was: "Do you have a map of the
cat?" (referring to a zoological chart). When he spoke, it
was with clarity.
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 Einstein at the same age, like the Soviet physicist Lev Landau
- but few others. — Genius : The Life and Science of Richard
his last year at Far Rockaway High School, Feynman won the New
York University Math Championship. Feynman received a bachelor's
degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939,
and was named Putnam Fellow that same year. While there, Feynman
had taken every physics course offered, and had taken a graduate
course on theoretical physics while only in his second year. He
obtained a perfect score on the entrance exams to Princeton University
in mathematics and physics — an unprecedented feat —
but did rather poorly on the history portion.
at Feynman's first seminar that he had given included the luminaries
Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, and John von Neumann. He received
a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1942; his thesis advisor
was John Archibald Wheeler. Feynman's thesis applied the principle
of stationary action to problems of quantum mechanics, laying
the ground work for the "path integral" approach and
researching his Ph.D, Feynman married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum.
(Arline's first name is often spelled Arlene, as it is in Surely
You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People
Think?, two collections of Feynman anecdotes. However, in his
own letters, published in Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From
the Beaten Track, Feynman wrote his wife's name as Arline.) Arline
had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, a terminal illness at that
time, but she and Feynman were careful, and he never contracted
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 help make sure that
Nazi Germany did not build them first. On weekends, he visited
his wife in a sanatorium in Albuquerque, right up until her death
on June 16, 1945. 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
provided, reasoning that it was safe to ignore instructions and
look through a truck windshield as it would screen out the harmful
a junior physicist, his work on the project was relatively remote
from the major action, consisting mostly of administering the
computation group of human computers in the Theoretical division,
and then, with Nicholas Metropolis, setting up the system for
using IBM punch cards for computation. John G. Kemeny, later president
of Dartmouth College, worked for Feynman at this time. Feynman
actually succeeded in solving one of the equations for the project
which were posted on the blackboards. However, they did not "do
the physics right" and Feynman's solution was not used in
other work at Los Alamos included calculating neutron equations
for the Los Alamos "Water Boiler", a small nuclear reactor
at the desert lab, in order to measure how close a particular
assembly of fissile material was to becoming critical. After this
work he was transferred to the Oak Ridge facility, where he aided
engineers in calculating safety procedures for material storage
(so that inadvertent criticality accidents, e.g. by storing individually
subcritical amounts of fissile material in close proximity on
opposite sides of a wall, could be avoided). He also did crucial
theoretical and calculation work on the proposed uranium-hydride
bomb, which was later proven to be infeasible.
was also sought out by the famous physicist Niels Bohr for one-on-one
discussions. He later found out why. Most physicists were too
much in awe of Bohr to argue with him, but Feynman had no such
inhibitions, vigorously pointing out anything he considered to
be flawed in his thinking. 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
to the top secret nature of the work, Los Alamos was isolated;
in his own words, "There wasn't anything to do there".
Bored, Feynman claims 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 was 27-18-28 after the base
of natural logarithms, e=2.71828...), and found that the three
filing cabinets in which a colleague kept a comprehensive set
of atomic bomb research notes (for his convenience while selecting
material for declassification) all had the same combination.
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. (Coincidentally, Feynman
once borrowed the car of physicist Klaus Fuchs in order to visit
his sick wife. Fuchs was later discovered to be a spy.) On another
occasion, he noted that a captain in his building at Los Alamos
had a massive safe, better than anything the bomb scientists had,
installed with much ado in his office.
time after the captain left Los Alamos, Feynman discovered that
the captain with the massive safe had (1) never bothered to change
the combination from the single generic factory setting, so that
even an amateur safecracker could open it, and (2) there was nothing
important being kept in the safe anyway, whereas all the secrets
of the bomb scientists were mostly kept in relatively insecure
locked cabinets. These anecdotes are related by him in the book
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
occasion, Feynman would find an isolated section of the mesa to
drum Indian-style; "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
to work at the University of California, Berkeley after the war.
career: Cornell University
After the project, Feynman started working as a professor at Cornell
University, where Hans Bethe (who proved that the sun's source
of energy was nuclear fusion) worked. However he felt uninspired
there; despairing that he had burned out, he turned to less useful,
but fun problems, such as analyzing the physics of a twirling,
nutating dish, as it is being balanced by a juggler. (As it turned
out, this work served him well in future research.)
was therefore surprised to be offered professorships from competing
universities, eventually choosing to work at the California Institute
of Technology at Pasadena, California, despite being offered a
position near Princeton, at the Institute for Advanced Study (which
included, at that time, such distinguished faculty as Albert Einstein).
rejected the Institute on the grounds that there were no teaching
duties. Feynman found his students to be a source of inspiration
and also, during uncreative times, comfort. He felt that if he
could not be creative, at least he could teach. Another major
factor in his decision was just a desire to live in a mild climate,
a goal he seized on while having to put snow chains on his car's
wheels in the middle of a snowstorm in Ithaca, New York.
is sometimes called the "Great Explainer"; he took great
care when explaining topics to his students, making it a moral
point not to make a topic arcane, but accessible to others. His
principle was that if a topic could not be explained in a freshman
lecture, it was not fully understood yet. Feynman gained great
pleasure from coming up with such a "freshman level"
explanation of the connection between spin and statistics (that
groups of particles with spin 1/2 "repel", whereas groups
with integer spin "clump"), a question he pondered in
his own lectures and which he solved in the 1986 Dirac memorial
opposed rote learning and other teaching methods that emphasized
form over function, everywhere 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 to even approach him when
unprepared, and he did not forget who the fools or pretenders
one sabbatical year, he returned to Newton's Principia to study
it anew; what he learned from Newton, he also passed along to
his students, such as Newton's attempted explanation of diffraction.
Feynman did much of his best work while at Caltech, including
Quantum electrodynamics. The theory for which Feynman won his
Nobel Prize is known for its extremely accurate predictions. 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.
2. 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 behavior
observable on a macroscopic scale. This helped enormously with
the problem of superconductivity.
3. A model of weak decay, which showed that the current coupling
in the process is a combination of vector and axial. (An example
of weak decay is the decay of a neutron into an electron, a proton,
and an anti-neutrino.) Although E.C. George Sudharsan and Robert
Marshak developed the theory nearly simultaneously, Feynman's
collaboration with Murray Gell-Mann was seen as the seminal one,
the theory was of massive importance, and the weak interaction
was neatly described.
also developed Feynman diagrams, a bookkeeping device which helps
in conceptualizing and calculating interactions between particles
in spacetime, notably the interactions between electrons and their
antimatter counterparts, positrons. This device allowed him, and
now others, to work with concepts which would have been less approachable
without it, such as time reversibility and other fundamental processes.
Feynman famously painted Feynman diagrams on the exterior of his
diagrams are now fundamental for string theory and M-theory, and
have even been extended topologically. 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. The world-lines
of the diagrams have become tubes to better model the more complicated
objects such as strings and M-branes.
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. The
quark model, however, was a rival to Feynman's parton formulation.
Feynman did not dispute the quark model; for example, when the
5th quark was discovered, Feynman immediately pointed out to his
students that the discovery implied the existence of a 6th quark,
which was duly discovered in the decade after his death.
the success of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman turned to quantum
gravity. By analogy with the photon, which has spin 1, he investigated
the consequences of a free massless spin 2 field, and was able
to derive the Einstein field equation of general relativity, but
little more. Unfortunately, at this time he became exhausted by
working on multiple major projects at the same time, including
his Lectures in Physics.
at Caltech, Feynman was asked to "spruce up" the teaching
of undergraduates. After three years devoted to the task, a series
of lectures was produced, eventually becoming the famous Feynman
Lectures on Physics, which are a major reason that Feynman is
still regarded by most physicists as one of the greatest teachers
of physics ever. He wanted a picture of a drumhead sprinkled with
powder to show the modes of vibration at the beginning of the
book; the publishers misunderstood him, and the books carry a
picture of him playing drums.
later won the Oersted Medal for teaching, of which he seemed especially
proud. His students competed keenly for his attention; once he
was awakened when a student solved a problem and dropped it in
his mailbox at home; glimpsing the student sneaking across his
lawn, he could not go back to sleep, and he read the student's
solution. That morning his breakfast was interrupted by another
triumphant student, but Feynman informed this student that he
was too late.
as a way to bring publicity to progress in physics, Feynman offered
$1000 prizes for two of his challenges in nanotechnology. He was
also one of the first scientists to conceive the possibility of
quantum computers. Many of his lectures and other miscellaneous
talks were turned into books such as The Character of Physical
Law and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. He gave lectures
which his students annotated into books, such as Statistical Mechanics
and Lectures on Gravity.
Feynman Lectures on Physics required two physicists, Robert B.
Leighton and Matthew Sands as full-time editors for several years.
Even though they were not adopted by the universities as textbooks,
the books continue to be bestsellers because they provide a deep
understanding of physics. As of 2005, The Feynman Lectures on
Physics have sold over 1.5 million copies in English, an estimated
1 million copies in Russian, and an estimated half million copies
in other languages.
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 integrity 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."
the late 1970's, according to "Richard Feynman and the Connection
Machine", Richard Feynman played a critical role in developing
the first parallel-processing computer and finding innovative
uses for it in numerical computing and building neural networks
as well as physical simulation with cellular automata (such as
turbulent fluid flow), working with Stephen Wolfram at Caltech.
Feynman's first wife Arline Greenbaum died of tuberculosis while
he was working on the Manhattan project. He married a second time,
to Mary Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas in June, 1952; this marriage
was brief and unsuccessful. He later married Gweneth Howarth from
the United Kingdom, who shared his enthusiasm for life and spirited
adventure. Besides their home in Altadena, California, they had
a beach house in Baja California. They remained married for life,
had a son, Carl, in 1962, and adopted a daughter, Michelle, in
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
did not apply for 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 coworker
characterized Feynman as akin to Don Quixote at his desk, rather
than at a computer workstation, ready to do battle with the windmills.
to Professor Steven Frautschi, a colleague of Feynman, Feynman
was the only person in the Altadena region to buy flood insurance
after the massive 1978 fire, predicting correctly that the fire's
destruction would lead to land erosion, causing mudslides and
flooding. The flood occurred in 1979 after winter rains and destroyed
multiple houses in the neighborhood.
traveled a great deal, notably to Brazil, and near the end of
his life 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. Out of his
enthusiastic interest of reaching Tuva came the phrase "Tuva
or Bust", which was tossed about frequently amongst his circle
of friends in hope that they, one day, could see it first-hand.
did not work only on physics, and had a large circle of friends
from all walks of life, including the arts. He took up painting
at one time and enjoyed some success under the pseudonym "Ofey",
culminating in an exhibition dedicated to his work. While at Los
Alamos on the Top Secret Manhattan Project, he earned the notoriety
of being a master safe-cracker. He learned to play drums (frigideira)
in acceptable samba style in Brazil by persistence and practice,
and participated in a samba "school". Feynman even translated
Mayan hieroglyphics. Such actions earned him a reputation of eccentricity.
to Genius, the James Gleick biography, Richard Feynman experimented
with LSD during his professorship at Caltech. Somewhat embarrassed
by his actions, Feynman sidestepped the issue when dictating his
anecdotes; consequently, the "Altered States" chapter
in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! describes 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.
also had very liberal views on sexuality and was not ashamed of
admitting it. In Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he gives
advice on the best way to pick up a girl in a hostess bar and
drew artwork for a massage parlor. He used a nude/topless bar
as an office away from the office, making sketches or writing
physics equations on paper placemats.
Feynman was requested to serve on the presidential Rogers Commission
which investigated the Challenger disaster of 1986. 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 flexible gas seals with a simple demonstration using a
glass of ice water, a clamp, and a sample of o-ring material.
opinion of the cause of the accident differed from the official
findings and was 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 book What Do You Care What Other People Think? includes
stories from Feynman's work on the commission. His engineering
skill is reflected in his 98% estimate of the Space Shuttle's
reliability, which is underscored by the two failures over the
114 flights of the Space Shuttle as of 2006.
cancer returned in 1987, with Feynman entering the 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. According to his
sister, Dr. Joan Feynman, Richard Feynman's last words were "This
dying is boring." He and his wife Gweneth, who died in 1989,
are buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Altadena, California.
On May 4, 2005 the United States Postal Service issued the American
Scientists commemorative postage stamp series, a set of four 37-cent
self-adhesive stamps in several configurations. The scientists
depicted were Richard Feynman, John von Neumann, Barbara McClintock
and Josiah Willard Gibbs. Feynman's stamp, sepia-toned, features
a photograph of a 30-something Feynman and eight small Feynman
shuttlecraft named after Feynman appeared in two episodes of the
science fiction television show Star Trek: The Next Generation
("The Nth Degree," 1991; "Chain of Command, Part
1," 1992). An error in the art department, however, caused
the shuttle name to be misspelled, "FEYMAN."
appears in the fiction book The Diamond Age as one of the heroes
of the world where nanotechnology is ubiquitous.
Mrs. Chown, Ignore your son's attempts to teach you physics. Physics
isn't the most important thing. Love is. Best wishes, Richard
is to math what sex is to masturbation."
is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's
not why we do it."
is not real, but it feels real. Where is this place?"
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.)
you are solving a problem, don't worry. Now, after you have solved
the problem, then that's the time to worry."
wonderful thing about science is that it's alive."
fundamental processes are reversible."
does it mean, to understand? ... I don't know."
I cannot create, I do not understand." (Taken from his chalkboard
after his death.)
how to solve every problem that has ever been solved." (Taken
from his chalkboard after his death.)
I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not
knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without
having any purpose—which is the way it really is, as far
as I can tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me."
those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across
a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature
... If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it
is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in."
cannot define the real problem, therefore I suspect there's no
real problem, but I'm not sure there's no real problem."
(about Quantum Mechanics)
hate to die twice. It's so boring" (last words).
those days, in Far Rockaway, there was a youth center for Jewish
kids at the temple.... Somebody nominated me for president of
the youth center. The elders began getting nervous, because I
was an avowed atheist by that time.... I thought nature itself
was so interesting that I didn't want it distorted like that [by
miracle stories]. And so I gradually came to disbelieve the whole
Not for a second! I immediately began to think how this could
have happened. And I realized that the clock was old and was always
breaking. That the clock probably stopped some time before and
the nurse coming in to the room to record the time of death would
have looked at the clock and jotted down the time from that. I
never made any supernatural connection, not even for a second.
I just wanted to figure out how it happened."
was invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain
those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally
discover how something works, you get some laws which you're taking
away from God; you don't need him anymore. But you need him for
the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the
universe because we haven't figured that out yet; you need him
for understanding those things which you don't believe the laws
will explain, such as consiousness, or why you only live to a
certain length of time -- life and death -- stuff like that. God
is always associated with those things that you do not understand.
Therefore I don't think that the laws can be considered to be
like God because they have been figured out."
honest I don't mean that you only tell what's true. But you make
clear the entire situation. You make clear all the information
that is required for somebody else who is intelligent to make
up their mind."
"Once we were
driving in the midwest and we pulled into a McDonald's. Someone
came up to me and asked me why I have Feynman diagrams all over
my van. I replied, "Because I am Feynman!" The young
man went, "Ahhhhh!""