Richard Feynman: A Life Of Curiosity And Science


It was World War II and scientists belonging to the Manhattan Project worked on calculations for the atomic bomb. Meanwhile, in one of the buildings, future Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was cracking the combination lock on a safe because doing so intrigued him. That’s as good a broad summary of Feynman as any: scientific integrity with curiosity driving both his work and his fun.

If you’ve heard of him in passing it may be because of his involvement on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster commission or maybe you’ve learned something from one of his many lectures preserved on YouTube. But did you know he also played with electronics as a kid, and almost became an electrical engineer?

He was the type of person whom you might sum up by saying that he had an interesting life. The problem is, you have to wonder how he fit it all into one lifetime, let alone one article. We’ll just have to let our own curiosity pick and choose what to say about this curious character.

Raised To Be Curious

Feynman was born in 1918. He grew up in New York City in the borough of Queens, near Brooklyn, which explains the Brooklyn accent he had all his life.

His mother gave him his sense of humor but it was his father who shaped his curiosity by teaching him the difference between learning facts and understanding them. The family would go to the Catskill Mountains in southeastern New York, where he and his father went for walks in the woods. He father would point out things such as bird behavior and start asking and explaining why they did certain things. This desire for understanding why and applying knowledge to the natural world played a big part in making him such a great scientist.

His younger sister, Joan, also took the path of science, eventually becoming an astrophysicist.

Feynman, The Hacker

Silvertone radio, circa 1937
Silvertone radio, circa 1937

Feynman frequently spoke of the lab he had as a kid, one which sounds familiar to many readers, including yours truly. It was a wooden packing box in which he’d put some shelves. To experiment with lighting and electricity, he’d picked up some lamp sockets from a five-and-dime store and would connect them up in different ways to get different voltages. To protect against shorts, he fashioned a fuse out of tin foil wrapped around a burnt out fuse.

He also enjoyed tinkering with radios and bought a crystal radio set which he’d listen to through earphones at night when going to sleep, something else we’re sure many readers recall doing. He continued his interest in radio by buying them at rummage sales and trying to repair them. His aunt who ran a hotel had him repair the hotel radio and that led to more repair jobs. During the depression, being a kid, his low fee was a drawing card.

MIT And Princeton

At just 15, Feynman taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, and differential and integral calculus, and while still in high school, won the New York University Math Championship.

It should be no surprise then that he was accepted at MIT to major in mathematics. However, he found it too abstract and switched for a while to electrical engineering. But deciding he’d gone too far in the other direction, he settled somewhere in the middle with physics. While at MIT he competed for the Putnam Prize, a prestigious mathematics competition, and became a Putnam Fellow.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1939, he moved on to Princeton University, getting a perfect score on the entrance exams in physics.

The cyclotron at Princeton reaffirmed for him that he was at the right school. It was housed in a single room in a basement. Wires hung everywhere, some with switches attached. Water dripped from valves and there was glyptal on the floor below wherever they fixed a vacuum. The whole thing was very hands on and it reminded him of his childhood lab.

Room 302 at Princeton where Einstein taught
Room 302 at Princeton where Einstein taught, by Deadly437 CC-BY-SA 40

While at Princeton, he was a research assistant to John Archibald Wheeler, an influential theoretical physicist. Wheeler helped Feynman work out problems for the classical version of what became the Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory. He also advised Feynman to give his first seminar on the subject with Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, and John von Neumann in attendance.

Feynman’s time a Princeton coincided with World War II and feeling patriotic, for summer jobs he looked for ways to apply his talents to the war effort. One summer job involved designing mechanical computers to do ballistics, much of it involving gears.

He received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1942.

Working On The Bomb

Feynman at Los Alamos. Robert Oppenheimer is second from the right.
Feynman at Los Alamos. Robert Oppenheimer is second from the right.

Like many scientists, Feynman went to work on the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico, as part of the Manhattan Project.

He had many jobs during this time. To give a few examples, for a time he worked for Hans Bethe during which they came up with the Bethe-Feynman formula which gave the yield of a fission bomb. He also worked on a system for computing using IBM punch cards. The work also involved some travel. He spent time at a uranium enrichment plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee to make sure that the materials weren’t in concentrations anywhere during the processing or storage where they’d become radioactive or explode.

This period of time wasn’t without its adventures though. He found an interest in picking locks and figuring out the combinations for combination locks. For some of this, he got in trouble, or people were warned to not let him near their filing cabinets. His new skills even came in handy a few times when a safe needed opening and the person who knew the combination was away.

Cornell University

Feynman diagram: Space-time vectors for electron-positron annihilation
Feynman diagram: Space-time vectors for electron-positron annihilation

After the war, in October 1945, Feynman accepted an offer to work at Cornell in Ithaca, New York. Some of that work included teaching but also research, in which he was given a free rein.

It was here where he came up with the well-known Feynman diagrams, a pictorial way of describing the mathematical descriptions of the behavior of particles. This was also where he did the fundamental work on quantum electrodynamics which later led to his winning a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

But Feynman grew restless at Cornell and tired of the cold weather so in 1951 he went to work at Caltech in California instead.

Caltech And Stirring Up Brazil

Carnival in Brazil
Carnival in Brazil, by Cid Costa Neto CC-BY-SA 3.0

As a condition of working at Caltech, he spent the first year in Brazil teaching at the Center for Physical Research. He noticed that students were very good at answering the type of questions which involved regurgitating facts, but they couldn’t apply that knowledge to the real world. He pointed this out in a talk he was asked to give toward the end of his visit. This was an example of his observing the difference his father had taught him between learning facts and understanding the why of things.

It was also in Brazil that he got interested in Samba music and took up the frigideira, a metal frying pan shaped instrument with a metal stick with which to beat it. He even played it as part of a band during the Carnival and at private parties.

When he returned from Brazil, he fell in love with Caltech. He especially liked that he could be in touch with people from so many disciplines and spent the remainder of his career there.

To give a small sample of his subsequent physics work, he examined the superfluidity of liquid helium, developed a model of weak decay with Murray Gell-Mann, and developed something called the parton model.

He also influenced future fields of endeavor. In 1959, he gave a talk called There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom which led to nanotechnology. He also helped initiate quantum computing in 1981, the year after it was first proposed by Russian mathematician Yuri Mannin.

The Space Shuttle Challenger Commission

Grey smoke from the solid rocket booster
Grey smoke from the solid rocket booster

What brought Feynman to the attention of many who were not normally interested in science was his involvement on the Rogers Commission which studied the Challenger disaster. The cause of the disaster was the effect that particular morning’s cold temperatures had on decreasing the resiliency of O-rings connecting cylindrical sections of the solid rocket boosters.

It was later revealed that fellow commission member and astronaut, Sally Ride tipped off General Donald Kutyna, also on the commission, about the O-ring problem. He then tipped off Feynman, knowing that Feynman would investigate it no matter the politics or fear of reprisals. With his dedication to scientific integrity, that’s just what he did and performed a simple and famous demonstration at a press conference using a cup of ice water, a clamp, and a sample O-ring.

He also found numerous other problems within NASA, mostly stemming from a disconnect between the working engineers who had a firm and realistic grasp of the issues and management who for some reason didn’t. The write-up of his findings appeared in the report as Appendix F and we have an article summarizing it here.

Teaching And Writing

Feynman book section at Caltech
Feynman book section at Caltech, by DRosenbach CC-BY-SA 3.0

During his years at Caltech he gained fame as a great teacher and is still sometimes referred to as “The Great Explainer”.

Many of his lectures have been collected into books. If you’re looking for a good science read then pretty much anything is recommended, from the very approachable Six Easy Pieces to one you’d expect to be difficult but somehow isn’t, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. The three book series, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, aren’t light reading, though they can be if you’re a real physics geek. They are, however, great to have on your bookcase as a reference. All these books impart understanding, something Feynman was a master at doing

And if you want even more fun, pick up a copy of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, an autobiography filled with not only the usual significant life details but also more antics than is believed one person can have in a single lifetime. A follow-up, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, contains more personal information in the first half, but the second half details his adventures working on the Challenger commission followed by the complete Appendix F which he’d written for the report.

Legacy

Feynman died of cancer in 1988 but left behind a legacy which is just as alive today as it was when he was around creating it. There are many lessons you can take from this legacy: to have fun, be curious, seek out understanding, but as a scientist or engineer the biggest challenge is perhaps to not fool yourself or anyone else, which Feynman referred to as integrity. It’s something he applied throughout his scientific career and it was a guiding principle for him while investigating the Challenger disaster. He put it this way:

I’m not talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

It’s a big legacy, so much so that this article could have been much longer and was even trimmed for length. So if you have a favorite Feynman story or book, perhaps we can spill some of his tale into the comments below.



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