Richard Feynman: Journey of the Most Charismatic Physicist

Richard Feynman: Journey of the Most Charismatic Character

Richard Phillips Feynman was an American physicist held in much reverence and awe among both the scientific community and the public alike. This was a result of his charismatic personality and his humorous way of life.

He is known in the scientific community for his work in the development of quantum electrodynamics. This work won him the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics jointly with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga. 

He was moreover popular as a result of his autobiographical books,

  1. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character
  2. What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character

Both of these were bestsellers.

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”, a biography by James Gleick was also a bestseller.

He was also very well known for his philosophies associated with pedagogy and his approach to teaching science. His unique approach to teaching resulted in the classic text “The Feynman Lectures on Physics” possibly one of the most sold physics books. 

Early Life and Education

Richard Feynman was born in 1918 in Queens, New York to Melville Arthur Feynman who was a sales manager, and mother Lucille. He got his humour from his mother, and curiosity along with nature to question everything from his father. His sister Joah Feynman would share similar curiosity, eventually becoming an astrophysicist of repute.

He was outstanding in math, from a young age. He displayed an understanding of mathematical concepts and equations, often cooking up his own notation. His aptitude in math in his youth has been considered to be comparable to that of Einstein’s youth. He’d go to win the New York University Math Championship in the last year of high school, at Far Rockaway High School

Feynman would do his undergraduate degree in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He would initially major in mathematics, declaring it “too abstract” and moving on to electrical engineering.

He’d describe this move as “going too far”, setting for a major in Physics something he considered “middle ground”. Feynman would complete his bachelor’s degree in 1939. He was a Putnam fellow having got the best marks by a large margin in the renowned William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.

He had also written two papers:

  1. One with Manuel Vallarta on “The Scattering of Cosmic Rays by the Stars of a Galaxy”
  2. Groundwork on the Hellmann–Feynman theorem with John Slater.

Feynman would also make records in the graduate entrance exams at Princeton University. He’d get a perfect score in the mathematics section, also performing well in the physics section.

He would go on to complete his doctoral thesis under John Archibald Wheeler receiving his PhD in 1942. His thesis was titled “The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics

Feynman and Arline

Feynman with his first wife Arline Greenbaum. Their romance was dramatized and depicted in the 1996 American film titled ‘Infinity’.
Feynman with his first wife Arline Greenbaum. Their romance was dramatized and depicted in the 1996 American film titled ‘Infinity’. (Source)

Feynman had been dating his high school sweetheart Arline and was determined to marry her. Due to restrictions imposed by Princeton, he would have to forfeit his fellowship if he married. Arline was sadly diagnosed with tuberculosis, which was incurable then. Feynman, however, married her on June 29, 1942, after completing his PhD. She was moved into a hospital where Feynman would visit her on weekends. 

America had entered World War II after Pearl Harbor. Feynman was involved in many projects to aid the war effort.

In early 1943, the Los Alamos National Laboratory was established. Under its charismatic director Robert Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project underwent with an aim to develop the first nuclear weapons.

In an almost warlike fashion with Oppenheimer as the general, many physicists captivated in a sense by his charm, joined the scientific teams involved in the development of the nuclear bomb. Oppenheimer invited Feynman over to Los Alamos, New Mexico stating that there was a sanatorium for Arline in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Feynman moved to Los Alamos to work in the Manhattan Project taking Arline with him in March 1943. He would drive to Albuquerque using a car borrowed from Klaus Fuchs to spend his weekends with Arline.

When he was informed that Arline was dying, Feynman drove over to Albuquerque, sitting with her for hours until she died on June 16, 1945. Following her death Feynman was heartbroken, delving into his work and Physics.

Manhattan Project

Feynman's Los Alamos ID badge
Caption: Feynman’s Los Alamos ID badge (Source)

Feynman was a junior physicist and was not majorly involved in the project.

He, however, worked in the theoretical division majoring working on equations and calculations involved with the project.

His work included calculations involving uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors and as well as calculating the yield and feasibility of the different bombs that were being considered at that point in time.

He had also in his capacity advised engineers stationed in Manhattan, New York on how to safely handle, purify and enrich Uranium.

Feynman had a habit trying to guess people’s combination locks for file cabinets, often succeeding. He’d often find the passwords were weak, referring to significant dates or special numbers in physics. The most notable example of this is 27–18–28 after the base of natural logarithms, e = 2.71828. He’d leave behind notes as a practical joke, spooking his colleagues.

Klaus Fuchs (the scientist who had loaned his car to Feynman) would, later on, inform the FBI of Feynman’s activities of frequently visiting Albuquerque as well as his habit of cracking open safes and such. Ironically Klaus himself was a Soviet spy, who’d be caught later on.

Trinity was the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear device. Notable observers include James Chadwick, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Robert Oppenheimer, and John von Neumann among others.
Trinity was the code name of the first detonation of a nuclear device. Notable observers include James Chadwick, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Robert Oppenheimer, and John von Neumann among others. (Source)

Feynman at Cornell

Feynman left for Ithaca, New York, in October 1945 to join Cornell University from Los Alamos, becoming one of the first scientists to leave the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

This was however a difficult time for him. The sudden death of his father and his broken heart as a result of the loss of his lover seemed to have depressed him considerably.

He was having a hard time focusing on research problems, and however, instead focused on physics problems that seemed not to have any use but to satisfy himself. Some of his solutions would, later on, help him in his Nobel Prize-winning work, but as it stood quantum electrodynamics was in trouble. 

The mathematics involved in quantum electrodynamics was problematic, and while Feynman and Wheeler had tried to work around it, they were unsuccessful. Feynman believed that the formulation involved needed to be changed, and he worked towards that. However, he was unsuccessful in carrying across his point as the explanation was novel and involved notation that was not traditionally seen. He was hence criticised by big-wigs such as Paul Dirac, Edward Teller and Niels Bohr.

Spurned by the ideas of Freeman Dyson who built upon Feynman’s work, Feynman would rigorously work towards science which involved both familiar notations as well novel ideas. This led to the development of Feynman diagrams, the Feynman–Kac formula as well as the Feynman propagator.

Such work led to the development of quantum electrodynamics and Feynman’s Nobel Prize.

Feynman in Brazil

Feynman spent time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from the 1950s taking a sabbatical from Cornell. He taught courses at the Centro Brasileiro de Pesquisas Físicas (the Brazillian Centre for Research in Physics).

It was here that Feynman started noticing a big problem in undergraduate education. He found most of the coursework impractical and uninteresting. It was at this moment that Feynman would work towards pedagogy in science. 

Feynman had developed a bit of a reputation as a ‘bad boy’ and a ‘womanizer’ in his days in Cornell. This increased in Brazil with many wild stories some of them narrated in Feynman’s autobiography. For example, Feynman who was adept in playing the bongo drums among other instruments would often take part in orchestras and musical pits. He also used to play the bongo at strip clubs according to some stories. Feynman would cement this reputation in some sense by alluding to it in his autobiography.

Feynman playing the bongo-drums.(Source)

Caltech and “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”

Feynman was frustrated around 1949 with Cornell citing the weather declaring it unlivable.

He moved to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1953, where he worked in superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, developed a model of weak decay, worked and developed the parton model as well worked on quantum gravity. He held Richard C. Tolman professorship in theoretical physics.

There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom: An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics” was a lecture given by Feynman where he talked about certain theoretical considerations of a ‘new science’. He had conceptualized the field of nanotechnology being of the first to do so. Many scientists consider him the father of nanotechnology.

In the 1960s, he was tasked with improving the undergraduate physics coursework at Caltech. He worked on this for three years, the development of which led to the “The Feynman Lectures on Physics” which were co-authored by Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands. The lectures themselves were given to undergraduate students at Caltech from 1961-63 with the book being published in 1964.

Three books which constitute Feynman Lecture
Three books which constitute Feynman Lecture (Source)

Feynman believed in understanding over rote memorization. He truly wanted his students to understand physics and not just memorize it. The text was designed in such a way to ensure that the students had a better grasp of the concepts involved.

In 2013, Caltech’s Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy and The Feynman Lectures Website made the books available online for free. Link to Site

Feynman became an advocate for science education and worked towards improving it. He believed that science education should empower the students to ask questions, to develop an open curiosity, while having a desire to answer and search for answers to these questions.

“The Feynman Lectures on Physics” is probably one of the most popular undergraduate physics texts, and has taught countless individuals.

Feynman in the 1980s and His Death

Feynman had wanted to write an autobiography in the 1960s, and writing began with his close friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton (son of physicist Robert B. Leighton who co-wrote “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”). This would result in the bestseller “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” published in 1985.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!” – the title refers to an incident in Princeton. When offered tea by a lady in Princeton, she asked Feynman whether he wanted cream or lemon in his tea, Feynman who was absent-minded at that moment replied, “Both”. To this, the lady retorted, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!”

Feynman entered public view in his role involving his role as a member of the Rogers Commission in 1986. The Rogers Commission was set up to investigate the Challenger disaster, where the Space Shuttle Challenger (OV-099) broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members aboard.

Feynman did rake up a bit of controversy with his brazenness. Feynman in the televised hearing demonstrated practically the problem that led to the disaster. His demonstration identified the problem that led to the disaster. He was extremely critical of NASA, blaming the NASA administration for the disaster.

He would talk about the experience, referring to the role of politics in science in greater detail in his second autobiographical work “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” in 1988 which was also co-authored by Ralph Leighton.

In 1978, Feynman complained of abdominal pain, which on investigation yielded that he was suffering from liposarcoma(a type of cancer). A tumour which was operated out was the size of a football and had crushed one of his kidneys. Complications, later on, resulted in kidney failure, resulting in his death February 15, 1988, at age 69. 

Tuva or Bust! (1991) is a book by Ralph Leighton, which talks about Feynman’s life long dream to travel to the Tuvan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR) in Russia. The plan arose from a discussion between the two friends as a joke. But they were both fascinated and wanted to visit the country. However, the plan was never successful due to the Cold War.

His last words were: “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”

These words perfectly summarise the colourful, charismatic, and beloved character that Richard Feynman was.

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  1. Surely You’re a Creep, Mr. Feynman!🤮

    He came off as a fun, likeable guy who just liked to do math, play pranks, and bang on the bongos.These things are true. But it’s also true that throughout his career, Feynman reveled in blatant misogyny and sexism. Several high-profile scientists have lost their jobs due to charges of sexual misconduct over last few years, #MeToo has not much altered the science professions, and it likely won’t until the culture of science is dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up. Part of this process must include a serious reconsideration of how we’ve regarded abusive male scientists in the past—and how we have allowed such figures, in turn, to control the story and direction of science. Astrobiologist Geoff Marcy and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, both of whom have finally been forced to face consequences for years of sexual predation in their respective fields. In November of 2018, the Boston Globe broke the story of three former Dartmouth neuroscience professors who turned the psychology and brain sciences department into a “21st-century Animal House,” groping and assaulting female students, seven of whom are now suing the college. For a long time, their contributions to science—the evidence of their putative genius—excused their crimes. The same excuse is still trotted out by Feynman’s defenders.
    In “Surely You’re Joking”, Feynman details how he adopted the mindset of a pick-up artist (an outlook he also claims to have eventually abandoned) by treating women as if they were worthless and cruelly lashing out at them when they rejected his advances. He worked and held meetings in strip clubs, and while a professor at CalTech, he drew naked portraits of his female students. Even worse, perhaps, he pretended to be an undergraduate student to deceive younger women into sleeping with him. His second wife accused him of abuse, citing multiple occasions when he’d fly into a blind rage if she interrupted him while he was working or playing his bongos.
    Scientists, however, have been framed as objective observers of phenomena while scientific practice itself has been seen as empirical, measureable, stable, and separate. This typical framing disconnects science from the rest of the world, allowing it to be perceived as a disembodied conduit for unadulterated knowledge. But science isn’t just a body of knowledge; it’s an institution and a culture with material connections to a lived-in world. Its practitioners are makers of and participants in that institution and culture. Another unsurprising case in point is Albert Einstein, who’s recently published diaries reveal gross racism and xenophobia. The equally iconic Pablo Picasso believed women were either “goddesses or doormats.” Science is as much a story as art or history. And it is a story that we have done a particularly bad job of telling because we have let men like Feynman control it.
    Another such erasure of women from the narrative of science is exemplified through Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to the DNA structure. James Watson was instrumental in this. He refers to Franklin as “Rosy” throughout his 1968 autobiography and describes her physical appearance in blatantly sexist ways. He also omits the part of the story in which he and Crick used Franklin’s Photograph 51 without her permission or knowledge; Photograph 51 was the key evidence to unlocking the structure of DNA. He couldn’t completely erase Franklin, since too many people knew who she was, but he diminished her enough with a whimsical nickname and assessments of her attractiveness that her part in the story could easily be missed. Feynman as a scientist and Feynman as a misogynist are not different storylines; they run in parallel tracks. These men became unassailable because of the power and prestige that their scientific work confers upon them. Their stature in the world of science lent them the permission and the protection to prey upon women without consequence.

    References and Further Reading:

    “Well, someone only has to give me the principle, and I get the idea. All during the next day I built up my psychology differently: I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic.”
    (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character, Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (contributor), Edward Hutchings (editor), 1985, W W Norton, ISBN 0-393-01921-7)

    Dr. Richard P. Feynman on not receiving sexual favours in return of sandwiches:

    I stop suddenly and I say to her, “You… are worse than a WHORE!”
    -“Whaddya mean?”
    ‘“You got me to buy these sandwiches, and what am I going to get for it? Nothing!”
    (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character, Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (contributor), Edward Hutchings (editor), 1985, W W Norton, ISBN 0-393-01921-7)

    From FBI’s background check on Dr. Feynman:

    “…the appointee’s wife was granted a divorce from him because of appointee’s constantly working calculus problems in his head as soon as awake, while driving car, sitting in living room, and so forth, and that his one hobby was playing his African drums. His ex-wife reportedly testified that on several occasions when she unwittingly disturbed either his calculus or his drums he flew into a violent rage, during which time he attacked her, threw pieces of bric-a-brac about and smashed the furniture.”
    (Link to FBI’s unclassified files on Dr. Feynman: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/366921-responsive-documents.html#document/p165)

    Source article: https://thebaffler.com/outbursts/surely-youre-a-creep-mr-feynman-mcneill?fbclid=IwAR2iHXFz3N0VtkUXoTq_6WtxAnma5q8z0V95vDMSdTE0KcPlsL9H5CoNuOQ

    “FEYNMAN SEXIST PIG!”
    (Caltech feminist group protesting the propagation of sexist stereotypes of women in Feynman’s book ‘Lectures on Physics’, 1960s.)

    —————————————————————-

    Science (or Art) does not need to progress on the cost of trauma on women and other minorities.

    1. Very wise and very true words. I believe science as an institution is indeed one of sexism and misogyny. Science needs systemic change, both internal and external. As someone who is a part of the institution, I believe I have erred in my ways of approaching this article by not talking about Feynman’s misogyny and sexism. I highly recommend that the readers of this article go through resources linked above and below on matters of where Feynman was at fault.

      Resources:
      1) https://caltechletters.org/viewpoints/feynman-harassment-science
      2) https://thebaffler.com/outbursts/surely-youre-a-creep-mr-feynman-mcneill?fbclid=IwAR2iHXFz3N0VtkUXoTq_6WtxAnma5q8z0V95vDMSdTE0KcPlsL9H5CoNuOQ