Richard Phillips Feynman

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Richard Phillips Feynman


American Physicist

Richard Feynman's brilliance is legendary. His method was once described as: "You write down the problem. You think very hard. Then you write down the answer." Feynman contributed significantly to our understanding of quantum mechanics, which describes the behavior of minuscule particles. He gave science a way to visualize the motion of these particles and a deeper understanding of why and how they behave the way they do. For this work he shared a Nobel Prize in 1965. His own quirks and eccentricities, however, were almost as important as those of the particles he studied; Feynman's insubordinate spirit gave the physics world a lesson in the value of questioning authority.

Feynman was introduced to science at an early age, growing up in Far Rockaway, New York. In his books, he fondly remembers his father's explanations of the world—not always perfectly accurate, sometimes fantastic, but full of the spirit of curiosity and investigation. His family's support and encouragement of his scientific pursuits allowed him to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), from which he graduated in 1939. From there he went on to Princeton University, where he earned his Ph.D.

In 1942, just after receiving his degree from Princeton, Feynman and his bride moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where he was one of the youngest physicists working on the Manhattan Project. His wife died of tuberculosis while they were there; when the project was disbanded after the war, Feynman relocated to Cornell University. There he began the work that would later win him—along with Julian Schwinger (1918-1994) and Shin'ichiro Tomonaga (1906-1979)—a Nobel Prize.

Feynman's work at Cornell was crucial to the understanding of how particles interact. He calculated the probability of each path a particle could take between two points, then figured out the summation of all these possible paths—a path integral. This was mathematically identical to wave function but related to the particles themselves, rather than their function within an electromagnetic field. Once a particle's path integral is determined, a Feynman diagram can be produced. This is essentially a space-time graph with the x-axis representing particles in space and the y-axis representing time. If the diagram is covered with a sheet of paper that is slowly pulled upwards, exposing one instant of the y-axis at a time, the particle's movement can be viewed. The Feynman diagram was the first visual model of quantum motion; Schwinger called it "bringing computation to the masses."

After leaving Cornell, Feynman carried on his theoretical physics work at Caltech. He also bolstered his quirky reputation by teaching introductory physics courses that drove away some unsuspecting freshmen (but were heavily attended by graduate students and professors), practiced his drumming and bongo-playing, frequented topless bars, dated heavily, married twice, divorced once, and acted in a student production of South Pacific.

Feynman's diagnosis of abdominal cancer in 1979 slowed down his irrepressible nature, but by then he was already a celebrity. In 1986 during Congressional hearings on the Challenger disaster, Feynman gave a simple but dramatic demonstration of the tragedy's cause. He put a clamp around some of the space shuttle's gasket material then dropped it into the ice water he had been drinking, showing that the material lost its resiliency under freezing conditions. This was the peak of Feynman's fame; he died two years later. His books, however, are still widely read and enjoyed and his contributions to the understanding of quantum particles are indispensable to anyone in the physics field.