Professor Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988)

Nobel laureate (physics, 1965), brilliant communicator, polymath, author, broadcaster, Lothario, bongocero, and one of the greatest minds of the century.

And that's only the start!

You might call Feynman the geeks' physicist. He is not as well-known outside scientific circles as Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein or even Niels Bohr, but he can easily stand beside any or all of them in the hall of fame of your choice. Indeed, Hawking describes Feynman as "the physicist's physicist," in his book, A brief History of Time.

In a sense, he surpasses them all, because of his wide range of interests. Feynman is noted in physics circles for re-formulating quantum mechanics in terms of quantum electrodynamics (QED)- a more successful theory of quantum fields, and his development of the Feynman diagram (a graphical way of describing interactions between sub-atomic particles). He is known in government circles for his incisive and revealing contributions to the Rogers Commission report into the Challenger disaster, in which he dramatically showed how rubber O-ring seals become brittle—and lose their ability to seal—at low temperatures. He is remembered by his colleagues on the Manhattan project as the man who worked out how to pick locks and break security, just to tease the security personnel. Mayan scholars remember his work on the Dresden Codex. He is remembered by thousands of physics students at Caltech as their personal hero, who imparted a little of his boundless and infectious enthusiasm for physics through his original and inspiring lectures.

pylon says, "perhaps you could mention his life-long obessesion with wanting to travel to Tuva (and the sad fact that he finally gained permission from the Soviets shortly after his death)"

He is, of course, remembered by his son Carl and adopted daughter Michelle, his sister Joan and wife Gweneth who died the following year.

Feynman was born in New York City on May 11th, 1918, to Lucille and Melville Feynman. He attended high school in Far Rockaway, New York. In 1939, as war was breaking out in Europe, Feynman received a B.S. from M I T, and the following year, he took up a Proctor Fellowship at Princeton University. During his two year stay at Princeton, he married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum. Feynman won his Ph D in 1942 with a thesis on the least action principle and started work on his ideas for a theory of QED.

His brilliance had been noted, however, and he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos under J. Robert Oppenheimer, alongside the greatest physicists in the free world.

Arline was diagnosed as having tuberculosis, and spent much of her time in hospital in Albuquerque, while Feynman proved that he was an equal to all the brains at Los Alamos. He became friends with Hans Bethe and many of the other top scientists working there. He also added a patent for a nuclear submarine and an atom-powered aeroplane.

Feynman's character started to come out at Los Alamos. He developed a passion for code-breaking and safe-cracking while there, and made a habit of breaking into supposedly secure areas, leaving harmless messages, just to prove that the security was leaky. This developed into one of his many lifelong passions, later exhibited in his efforts to interpret the Mayan book known as the Dresden Codex.

As the war came to an end, and the Manhattan Project was shown to have been a success, Arline died in the Albuquerque hospital. Feynman is said to have been devastated.

Bethe persuaded Cornell University to grant Feynman an associate professorship in 1945, and he stayed there until 1951, using his time to formalise his theories of quantum electrodynamics. At the Shelter Island Conference of 1947, American physicists planned the development of atomic science in the USA, and Feynman first published the results of his work into QED.

He became a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1950, and was appointed a full professor the same year.

In 1959, he took up the post of Richard Chace Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics, at Caltech. He remained in this post until his death in 1988.

These were the golden days of Feynman's career. He made important contributions to the study of liquid helium, particle physics, and later, quantum chromodynamics, an extension of QED. He also discovered his gift for teaching.

The lectures now crystallised in the publication The Feynman Lectures on Physics (see below) were delivered to freshmen on Caltech's Physics courses in 1961 and 1962

In 1952, Feynman married Mary Louise Bell, who taught the history of decorative art at the university. The marriage did not last, they were divorced in 1956.

Feynman married for the third and final time in 1960. His bride was Gweneth Margaret Howarth. They had a son, Carl Richard (born 22nd April 1961), and later adopted a daughter, Michelle Catherine (born 13th August 1968). Gweneth survived her husband by only a few months.

In 1965, Feynman was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on QED, together with two colleagues, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger. Feynman came to regard the prize as more of a curse than a blessing.

Feynman collected a range of distinctions and awards during his long career, including the Albert Einstein Award (1954, Princeton); Einstein Award (Albert Einstein Award College of Medicine); the E.O.Lawrence Award from the Atomic Energy Commission (1962) and the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal (1973). In addition, Feynman was elected to be a Foreign Member of the UK?s Royal Society (1965) and won Caltech's Oersted Medal for Teaching (1972).

He died of a rare form of stomach cancer, on February 15, 1988.

Beyond the academic career

Reports of Feynman differ, from being intellectually arrogant, and not suffering fools gladly, to a modest man, slightly embarrassed at the celebrity status he achieved. It is clear that he had learned and could recall a vast range of facts and data. It is also clear that he had a great gift for understanding and explaining complex ideas. The power of his intellect cannot be disputed-not many are awarded Nobel prizes.

' ... he had an insatiable curiosity, deep love of nature, a passion for teaching, and high standards of scientific integrity. His interests extended to ants and paramecia; to hypnotism and the mixing of paints; to spinning dinner plates, locks, codes and ancient scripts. From his parents he learned to value and befriend nature, and he tried to communicate this strongly felt emotion through his teaching, and in later years also through painting. He was a classroom virtuoso, who judged his own understanding of the most subtle concepts by his ability to explain it to a novice?' (from Most of the Good Stuff See below)

One "C Dillon" remembers him in a different way:

'Way back in the late 70's/early 80's I worked for a small ballet company in San Francisco, working their sound system and sewing costumes. One of our choreographers decided to set Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" to live drum music (don't ask). So, for the next several weeks, we spent evenings in rehearsal with two drummers, one by the name of Richard Feynman. I thought him pleasant, funny, and collegial - and "rather intelligent"! It wasn't until years later, I discovered he was also a Nobel prize physicist! And my love for him continues...

There are many, many quotes that can be used to describe Feynman's work and ideas. My favourite is his penchant for asking, "any questions?" and when none came, shouting in feigned anger (but in all seriousness), "Well what are you here for then?" He believed in asking questions, in challenging and probing, and above all, in finding the answers. It was this drive to ask questions and get the answers which found him a place on the Rogers Commission following the Challenger disaster

The Challenger disaster and the Rogers Commission

I don't think this is the place to go into detail on the findings of the Rogers Commission. That's probably another node. Feynman wrote an appendix to the Rogers report, highlighting a series of failures in the technology and in the management of the project. In particular, he noted that the management thought the shuttle might fail at a rate of one in 100 000 launches. That would mean NASA could launch one shuttle a day for about 300 years before getting a single failure. The engineers, by contrast, thought one in 1000 was more realistic. A factor of 100. Two groups of people, working in adjacent offices, with such different perceptions of risk.

Feynman's concern was how the managers could possibly believe the technology was so reliable. His implied conclusion was that they deliberately underestimated the risks, in order to sell the idea of space travel to Congress and the tax-payers. Hence the conclusion that you can spin the facts as much as you like, but reality will eventually catch up with you.

Publications (books) by Feynman

Vol. 1. Quantum Mechanics Vol. 2. Advanced Quantum Mechanics Vol. 3. From Crystal Structure to Magnetism Vol. 4. Electrical and Magnetic Behavior Vol. 5. Feynman on Fundamentals: Energy and Motion Vol. 6. Feynman on Fundamentals : Kinetics and Heat Vol. 7. More classical mechanics Complements Volumes 5, 6 and 9 ) Vol. 8. Quantum Mechanics & Electrodynamics (Complements Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 10) Vol. 9. Complements Volumes 5, 6 and 7 (Classical Mechanics) Vol. 10. Complements Volumes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 8 (Quantum Mechanics & Electrodynamics) Vol. 11. Feynman on Fundamentals: Mechanics - harmonic oscillators, linear systems, and the principle of statistical mechanics. Vol. 12. Feynman on Fundamentals: Sound, includes a discussion of the wave equation, beats, modes, and harmonics. Vol. 13. Feynman on Fields-contains sections on relativity, light scattering, relativistic effects in radiation, & magnetic fields Vol. 14. Feynman on Electricity and Magnetism, Part 1 Vol. 15. Feynman on Electricity and Magnetism, Part 2 Vol. 16. Feynman on Electromagnetism (The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume 16)

Publications (books) ABOUT Feynman (and anthologies)

relevant websites


A few nice quotations by this eminent scientist, teacher, and publicist (who lived from 1918 until 1988, as nobody has mentioned yet).

  • Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known; what is not known; to what extent things ARE known (for nothing is known absolutely); how to handle doubt and uncertainty; what the rules of evidence are; how to think about things so that judgments can be made; how to distinguish truth from fraud and from show.
  • Pretentious "science" such as Creationism is "a claim based upon the stupidity of the author that some obvious and correct fact, accepted and checked for years is, in fact, false (these are the worse: no argument will convince the idiot).
  • When you have learned what an explanation really is, you can then go on to more subtle questions.
  • The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty.... We take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure--- that it is possible to live and NOT know. But I don't know whether everyone realizes that this is true.
  • An ordinary fool isn't a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible!
  • The test of science is its ability to predict.
  • Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.

Some more quotes by Feynman, on his blackboard he wrote "that which I cannot derive I do not understand". Someone once said to him "Stephen Hawking can calculate Feynman diagrams in his head, now thats smart". Feynman replied "Yeah but really smart is to come up with Feynman diagrams"

  • Poets are always complaining that scientists take away from the beauty of the stars. Mere globs of gas atoms! Nothing is mere. I too can see the stars on a desert night and feel them. Stuck on this tiny carousel my little eye can catch million year old light. But what of the pattern, the meaning, the why? For far more awesome is the truth than any artists of the past could imagine. Where are the poets of the present to speak of it? Who are the poets who can speak of Jupiter as if he was a man - and when it is a huge spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must remain silent?

  • The law of gravity has all the typical characteristics of a scientific law. It's simple, beautiful, mathematical, and incomplete. It's beautiful because it's simple, and it's mathematical because that's how nature speaks to us. (Gravity is a force of attraction between two bodies which goes inversely as the square of the distance between them). And it's incomplete because it didn't account for the little wobble in Mercury's orbit around the sun, and although Einstein fixed that with 'General Relativity' gravity still doesn't fit together with any of the other known laws of science.
    (How about this? There is a force of repulsion between electrons - it's called the electromagnetic force - and it also goes inversely as the square of the distance between them. Compared to this force, gravity is extremely weak. It is 1/10 to the power of 24 bigger is electricity ! Where else is there a number as big as 10 to the power of 24? Well, the diameter if the universe is 10 to the 24 times bigger than the diameter of a proton. If you could shrink down all of the universe to the diameter of a proton then all the gravity would be contained in this tiny space and would be equal and opposite to the repulsive electromagnetic force. They would cancel each other out and then you would have NOTHING! Which is roughly the state of affairs just before the big bang.)
  • ~
    When you're thinking about something you don't understand you get this terrible unhappy feeling called confusion. You can't penetrate this thing and most of the time you feel rather unhappy with this confusion. And the reason for this confusion is that we're all some kind of apes trying to reach the banana - and we can't quite make it. And I feel like this all the time. I'm some kind of ape trying to put two sticks together and I always feel stupid. But sometimes the sticks go together and I reach the banana.

  • I think it is more interesting to live not knowing answers than to have answers that might be wrong. I have approximate answers, possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely certain of anything, and there's some things I know nothing about at all - like whether it means anything to ask,'Why are we here?' I might think about it for a little while, but if I can't figure it out then I'll go to something else. I'm not afraid of being lost in a mysterious universe with no purpose, which is the way it is, possibly. It doesn't frighten me.

  • The Universe is like a huge game of chess and the scientists who are trying to work out the rules only get to look at a little corner of the game. They might notice that a particular bishop always lands on a black square. They might then work out that this bishop only ever moves on diagonal lines. This gives them a deeper understanding of why it is always on a black square. And then something really weird happens. Two pieces move at once and kind of swap over. What was that all about? Well it's castling and it takes a while to work out the rules for something complicated like that. And then the scientist might notice that the bishop which he always thought was on a black square is on a white square. Now that very interesting and it might take a long time to work out how that happened. And it takes some working out to discover that a pawn went all the way to the other end but instead of 'Queening' it with a queen the player preferred to 'queen' it with a bishop. Scientists are interested in these kind of strange exceptions, and if they study their little corner of the chess board for long enough they might be able to work out all the rules. In chess the more you understand the more complicated it gets. In science it gets simpler. The history of science shows us that lots of things we thought were all different turned out to be only different aspects of the same thing. So it gets easier. Whereas before heat motion, and sound were all different, now we understand why they are all to do with motion and obey the mechanical laws. Whereas before, electricity, magnetism, and light were all different, now we understand that they're all connected and obey the laws of electrodynamics. Scientists haven't fitted gravity into the picture...yet t

    Wiccanpiper says re Richard P. Feynman: And, of course, his famous quote from the Challenger hearings: "Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."

"God 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 consciousness, 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."

"Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry."


The Beauty of a Flower
In case you haven't experienced Richard P. Feynman, try these books out:

Six Easy Pieces: A book made for people with no experience with math or science. Even then, it manages to describe atoms, thermodynamics, relativity, quantam mechanics, etc... Just the fact that Feynman managed to explain all this to the everyday person is proof of his genius.

Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: The next step up from Easy Pieces. It deals mainly with Relativity, and has a bit more math involved than easy Pieces did.

The Feynman Lectures on Physics: This is a three volume set of what was supposed to be the freshman and sophmore physics textbook at Cal-Tech. It covers vectors, E&M, relativity, quantum mechanics, most everything except string theory. The 12 pieces in Easy Pieces and Not-So-Easy Pieces are actually 12 lectures out of these three volumes.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!:Taken from apirkle above... A collection of anecdotes about his life. A truly excellent should go read it now.

What Do You Care What Other People Think?:Taken from Xydexx Squeakypony... a collection of Feynman stories, though I don't think it was written by Feynman himself. It's a followup to "Surely You're Joking..." Note: I haven't read this one myself, I will as soon as I get the chance.

Feynman Lectures on Computation:Taken from chinoodle... You should also add "Feynman Lectures on Computation" which I cannot recommend enough to all Computer Science undergraduates .. it should be required reading

The following I have been notified have also been written by Feynman, though I have not read them myself. Thanks st.augustine for pointing them out!:
The Meaning of it All
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

If I missed any (I'm sure I have, these are only the ones I have read) please /msg me and tell me what to add on this list!
Some additional factoids:

Feynman was one hell of a womanizer. He enjoyed patronizing gentleman's clubs during his swingin' years at Cal Tech. A former professor of mine was once taken by Feynman (married at the time) to a lounge where all of the attractive girls gravitated to him.

His first wife died of Tuberculosis a few years after they were married.

He became interested in Physics initially by tinkering with radios. There is famous quote by the physicist I.I. Rabi to the effect "Some people become physicists because they're curious about their radio, others become physicists because they are curious about their god." I don't know if this was a dig a at Feynman and his seemingly happy-go-lucky persona or not.

Feynman is widely recognized as one of the only physicists who was both a successful theoretician and experimentalist.

The Feynman lectures are damn good as a supplementary text and are helpful in reviewing old material to prepare for the Physics GRE.

I wish to address the commonly stated falsehood that "Feynman was one hell of a womanizer." There is no more relevant basis for this claim than there is of any other male who finds women attractive and has had more than one sexual partner over the course of his life. Only, perhaps Prof. Feynman had more respect for women back then, than most men do for women nowadays.

Richard Feynman was actually quite akward with women, never really knowing why they did a particular thing, or thought a particular way. He was quite the gentleman to his dates, to the point of being used and abused. In Surely you're Joking, Mr. Feynman! he recounts lamenting always being surrounded by pretty women, but never being able to get one to come home with him. Again, this is not exactly an unknown feeling among the average American male. It wasn't until he was coached by a husband-and-wife team to not be such a gentleman, and quit buying everyone drinks, that his bedroom life began in any significant sense. And it took all-day of psyching himself up to be able to not act like a gentleman that evening. This bad-boy phase also lasted a little less than a year, and only because he had been told to, by women, and it was proven to work, repeatedly.

As far as is known, he was faithful to his first wife, until after she died of TB. Even in the midst of helping to develop the atom bomb, he still drove across New Mexico to see his wife in the hospital whenever he could. His second wife was not chosen for her body, but rather her mind; Feynman makes many references to her intellect and the fact that she helped him on numerous projects. His average "honey-do" list was composed of math and physics equations. Indeed, Feynman's own sister was quite intelligent as well and he often contacted her, requesting assistance on particularly tricky equations.

Feynman loved to paint and draw nudes, because he was fascinated by the human body, even the ugly ones, and his works, under the name O'Fey, were highly sought out. A Massage Parlor owner once commissioned him for a painting, but Feynman felt that the requested image was far too sexist for a work he wanted to be involved in. He refused until they compromised and a rather less offensive image was agreed upon. Feyman did go to topless bars, and did watch women dance, but usually found himself more distracted with scrawling out math problems on a cocktail napkin.

Though he grew up in a pre-Women's Lib era, Feynman always had respect for women. For his first job he even worked for his aunt as maintenance at a hotel, during a time when having a female boss would be considered humiliating. He never made mention of being remotely uncomfortable with this arrangement.

These are not the actions of a negatively oversexed chauvenist that the term womanizer conjures to mind. He was attracted to women, and had at least a few sexual partners over the course of his life. Richard P. Feynman was no different than any other straight male in America, except that he likely treated his significant others better than most other men.

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