Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an American physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics (he proposed the parton model). For his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman, jointly with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He developed a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams. During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world.
He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb and was a member of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing, and introducing the concept of nanotechnology. He held the Richard Chace Tolman professorship intheoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology.
Feynman was a keen popularizer of physics through both books and lectures, notably a 1959 talk on top-down nanotechnology called There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom and The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman also became known through his semi-autobiographical books (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?) and books written about him, such as Tuva or Bust!
Richard Phillips Feynman was born on May 11, 1918, in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York. His family originated from Russia and Poland; both of his parents were Jewish, but they were not devout. In fact, by his early youth, Feynman described himself as an “avowed atheist”. Feynman (in common with the famous physicists Edward Teller and Albert Einstein) was a late talker; by his third birthday he had yet to utter a single word. The young Feynman was heavily influenced by his father, Melville, who encouraged him to ask questions to challenge orthodox thinking. From his mother, Lucille, he gained the sense of humor that he had throughout his life. As a child, he delighted in repairing radios and had a talent for engineering. His younger sisterJoan also became a professional physicist.
While researching for his Ph.D., Feynman married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum (often spelled Arlene). She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, but she and Feynman were careful, and he never contracted it. She succumbed to the disease in 1945. This portion of Feynman’s life was portrayed in the 1996 film Infinity, which featured Feynman’s daughter Michelle in a cameo role.
He was married a second time in June 1952, to Mary Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas; this marriage was brief and unsuccessful. He later married Gweneth Howarth from Ripponden, Yorkshire, who shared his enthusiasm for life and spirited adventure. Besides their home in Altadena, California, they had a beach house in Baja California, purchased with the prize money from Feynman’s Nobel Prize, his one third share of $55,000. They remained married until Feynman’s death. They had a son, Carl, in 1962, and adopted a daughter, Michelle, in 1968.
Feynman 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 were not useful with 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 co-worker characterized Feynman as akin to Don Quixote at his desk, rather than at a computer workstation, ready to do battle with the windmills.
Feynman traveled a great deal, notably to Brazil, and near the end of his life schemed to visit the Russian land of Tuva, a dream that, because of Cold Warbureaucratic problems, never became reality. The day after he died, a letter arrived for him from the Soviet government giving him authorization to travel to Tuva. During this period, he discovered that he had a form of cancer, but, with surgery, managed to forestall it. Out of his enthusiastic interest in reaching Tuva came the phrase “Tuva or Bust” (also the title of a book about his efforts to get there), which was tossed about frequently amongst his circle of friends in hope that they, one day, could see it firsthand. The documentary movie Genghis Blues mentions some of his attempts to communicate with Tuva, and chronicles the successful journey there by his friends.
Responding to Hubert Humphrey’s congratulation for his Nobel Prize, Feynman admitted to a long admiration for the then vice president. In a letter to an MIT professor dated December 6, 1966, Feynman expressed interest in running for the governor of California.
Feynman took up drawing at one time and enjoyed some success under the pseudonym “Ofey”, culminating in an exhibition dedicated to his work. He learned to play a metal percussion instrument (frigideira) in a samba style in Brazil, and participated in a samba school.
In addition, he had some degree of synesthesia for equations, explaining that the letters in certain mathematical functions appeared in color for him, even though invariably printed in standard black-and-white.
According to Genius, the James Gleick-authored biography, Feynman experimented with LSD during his professorship at Caltech. Somewhat embarrassed by his actions, Feynman largely sidestepped the issue when dictating his anecdotes; he mentions it in passing in the “O Americano, Outra Vez” section, while the “Altered States” chapter in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! describes only 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—the same reason given in “O Americano, Outra Vez” for his reluctance to experiment with LSD.
In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he gives advice on the best way to pick up a girl in a hostess bar. At Caltech, he used a nude/topless bar as an office away from his usual office, making sketches or writing physics equations on paper placemats. When the county officials tried to close the place, all visitors except Feynman refused to testify in favor of the bar, fearing that their families or patrons would learn about their visits. Only Feynman accepted, and in court, he affirmed that the bar was a public need, stating that craftsmen, technicians, engineers, common workers “and a physics professor” frequented the establishment. While the bar lost the court case, it was allowed to remain open as a similar case was pending appeal.
Feynman developed two rare forms of cancer, Liposarcoma and Waldenström’s macroglobulinemia, dying shortly after a final attempt at surgery for the former on February 15, 1988, aged 69. His last recorded words are noted as “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”