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The Man Who Knew Everything

The Man Who Knew Everything

Richard Phillips Feynman  was an American theoretical 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. In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal Physics World he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time.


He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb and was a member of the Rogers Commission, 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 in theoretical physics at theCalifornia Institute of Technology.

Early life :

Richard Phillips Feynman was born on May 11, 1918, in Manhattan, New York, the son of Lucille (née Phillips), a homemaker, and Melville Arthur Feynman, a sales manager. His family originated from Russia and Poland; both of his parents were Ashkenazi Jews. They were not religious, and by his youth Feynman described himself as an "avowed atheist". Feynman was a late talker, and by his third birthday had yet to utter a single word. The young Feynman was heavily influenced by his father, who encouraged him to ask questions to challenge orthodox thinking, and who was always ready to teach Feynman something new. From his mother, he gained the sense of humor that he had throughout his life. As a child, he had a talent for engineering, maintained an experimental laboratory in his home, and delighted in repairing radios. When he was in grade school, he was able to create a home burglary system while his parents were out for the day running errands.

Education :

In high school, his IQ was determined to be 125—high, but "merely respectable" according to biographer James Gleick. Feynman later scoffed at psychometric testing. In 1933, when he turned 15, he taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, infinite series, analytic geometry, and both differential and integral calculus. Before entering college, he was experimenting with and re-creating mathematical topics, such as the half-derivative, using his own notation. In high school, he was developing the mathematical intuition behind his Taylor series ofmathematical operators.

Feynman attended Far Rockaway High School, a school also attended by fellow laureates Burton Richter and Baruch Samuel Blumberg. A member of the Arista Honor Society, in his last year in high school, Feynman won the New York University Math Championship; the large difference between his score and those of his closest competitors shocked the judges.

He applied to Columbia University, but was not accepted. Instead he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a bachelor's degree in 1939, and in the same year was named a Putnam Fellow.


He obtained a perfect score on the graduate school entrance exams to Princeton University in mathematics and physics—an unprecedented feat—but did rather poorly on the history and English portions. Attendees at Feynman's first seminar included Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, and John von Neumann. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1942; his thesis advisor was John Archibald Wheeler. Feynman's thesis applied the principle of stationary action to problems of quantum mechanics, inspired by a desire to quantize the Wheeler–Feynman absorber theory of electrodynamics, laying the groundwork for the "path integral" approach and Feynman diagrams, and was titled "The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics".

Early academic career :

Following the completion of his Ph.D. in 1942, Feynman held an appointment at the University of Wisconsin–Madison as an assistant professor of physics. The appointment was spent on leave for his involvement in the Manhattan project. In 1945, he received a letter from Dean Mark Ingraham of the College of Letters and Science requesting his return to UW to teach in the coming academic year. His appointment was not extended when he did not commit to return. In a talk given several years later at UW, Feynman quipped, "It's great to be back at the only university that ever had the good sense to fire me".

After the war, Feynman declined an offer from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, despite the presence there of such distinguished faculty members as Albert Einstein,Kurt Gödel, and John von Neumann. Feynman followed Hans Bethe, instead, to Cornell University, where Feynman taught theoretical physics from 1945 to 1950.During a temporary depression following the destruction of Hiroshima by the bomb produced by the Manhattan Project, he focused on complex physics problems, not for utility, but for self-satisfaction. One of these was analyzing the physics of a twirling, nutating dish as it is moving through the air. His work during this period, which used equations of rotation to express various spinning speeds, proved important to his Nobel Prize-winning work, yet because he felt burned out and had turned his attention to less immediately practical problems, he was surprised by the offers of professorships from other renowned universities.


Despite yet another offer from the Institute for Advanced Study, Feynman rejected the Institute on the grounds that there were no teaching duties: Feynman felt that students were a source of inspiration and teaching was a diversion during uncreative spells. Because of this, the Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton University jointly offered him a package whereby he could teach at the university and also be at the institute. Feynman instead accepted an offer from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) — and as he says in his book Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! — because a desire to live in a mild climate had firmly fixed itself in his mind while he was installing tire chains on his car in the middle of a snowstorm in Ithaca.

Feynman has been called the "Great Explainer". He gained a reputation for taking great care when giving explanations to his students and for making it a moral duty to make the topic accessible. His guiding principle was that, if a topic could not be explained in a freshman lecture, it was not yet fully understood. Feynman gained great pleasure  from coming up with such a "freshman-level" explanation, for example, of the connection between spin and statistics. What he said was that groups of particles with spin ½ "repel", whereas groups with integer spin "clump." This was a brilliantly simplified way of demonstrating how Fermi–Dirac statistics and Bose–Einstein statistics evolved as a consequence of studying how fermions and bosons behave under a rotation of 360°. This was also a question he pondered in his more advanced lectures, and to which he demonstrated the solution in the 1986 Dirac memorial lecture. In the same lecture, he further explained that antiparticles must exist, for if particles had only positive energies, they would not be restricted to a so-called "light cone."

He opposed rote learning or unthinking memorization and other teaching methods that emphasized form over function. Clear thinking and clear presentation were fundamental prerequisites for his attention. It could be perilous even to approach him when unprepared, and he did not forget the fools or pretenders.

Caltech years :

Feynman did significant work while at Caltech, including research in:

  • Quantum electrodynamics : The theory for which Feynman won his Nobel Prize is known for its accurate predictions. This theory was begun in the earlier years during Feynman's work at Princeton as a graduate student and continued while he was at Cornell. This work consisted of two distinct formulations, and it is a common error to confuse them or to merge them into one. The first is his path integral formulation, and the second is the formulation of his Feynman diagrams. Both formulations contained his sum over histories method in which every possible path from one state to the next is considered, the final path being a sum over the possibilities (also referred to as sum-over-paths). For a number of years he lectured to students at Caltech on his path integral formulation of quantum theory. The second formulation of quantum electrodynamics (using Feynman diagrams) was specifically mentioned by the Nobel committee. The logical connection with the path integral formulation is interesting. Feynman did not prove that the rules for his diagrams followed mathematically from the path integral formulation. Some special cases were later proved by other people, but only in the real case, so the proofs don't work when spin is involved. The second formulation should be thought of as starting anew, but guided by the intuitive insight provided by the first formulation. Freeman Dyson published a paper in 1949 which, among many other things, added new rules to Feynman's which told how to actually implement renormalization. Students everywhere learned and used the powerful new tool that Feynman had created. Eventually computer programs were written to compute Feynman diagrams, providing a tool of unprecedented power. It is possible to write such programs because the Feynman diagrams constitute a formal language with a grammar.
  • Physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, where helium seems to display a complete lack of viscosity when flowing. Feynman provided a quantum-mechanical explanation for the Soviet physicist Lev D. Landau’s theory of superfluidity.Applying the Schrödinger equation to the question showed that the superfluid was displaying quantum mechanical behavior observable on a macroscopic scale. This helped with the problem of superconductivity; however, the solution eluded Feynman. It was solved with the BCS theory of superconductivity, proposed by John Bardeen, Leon Neil Cooper, and John Robert Schrieffer.


  • A model of weak decay, which showed that the current coupling in the process is a combination of vector and axial currents (an example of weak decay is the decay of a neutron into anelectron, a proton, and an anti-neutrino). Although E. C. George Sudarshan and Robert Marshak developed the theory nearly simultaneously, Feynman's collaboration with Murray Gell-Mannwas seen as seminal because the weak interaction was neatly described by the vector and axial currents. It thus combined the 1933 beta decay theory of Enrico Fermi with an explanation of parity violation.

Personal life :

While researching for his Ph.D., Feynman married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum . She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, but she and Feynman were careful, and he never contracted it. She died of the disease in 1945. This portion of Feynman's life was portrayed in the 1996 filmInfinity, which featured Feynman's daughter, Michelle, in a cameo role.

He married a second time in June 1952, to Mary Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas; this marriage was brief and unsuccessful:

He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.
—Mary Louise Bell divorce complaint.

He later married Gweneth Howarth (1934–1989) 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.

Death :

Feynman had 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. "


Textbooks and lecture notes :

The Feynman Lectures on Physics is perhaps his most accessible work for anyone with an interest in physics, compiled from lectures to Caltech undergraduates in 1961–64. As news of the lectures' lucidity grew, a number of professional physicists and graduate students began to drop in to listen. Co-authors Robert B. Leighton and Matthew Sands, colleagues of Feynman, edited and illustrated them into book form. The work has endured and is useful to this day.

  • Feynman, Richard P. (1970). The Feynman Lectures on Physics: The Definitive and Extended Edition. 3 volumes (2nd ed.).
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1961). Theory of Fundamental Processes. Addison Wesley.
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1962). Quantum Electrodynamics. Addison Wesley.
  • Feynman, Richard P.; Hibbs, Albert (1965). Quantum Mechanics and Path Integrals. McGraw Hill.
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1967). The Character of Physical Law: The 1964 Messenger Lectures. MIT Press.
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1981). Statistical Mechanics: A Set of Lectures. Addison Wesley.
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1985b). QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Princeton University Press.
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1987). Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics: The 1986 Dirac Memorial Lectures. Cambridge University Press.
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1995). In Brian Hatfield. Lectures on Gravitation. Addison Wesley Longman.
  • Feynman, Richard P. (1997). Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun (Vintage Press ed.). London: Vintage.
  • Feynman, Richard P. (2000). In Tony Hey and Robin W. Allen. Feynman Lectures on Computation. Perseus Books Group.

Popular works :

  • Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character, with contributions by Ralph Leighton, W. W. Norton & Co, 1985.
  • What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character, with contributions by Ralph Leighton, W. W. Norton & Co.
  • No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, ed. Christopher Sykes, W. W. Norton & Co, 1996.
  • Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher, Perseus Books, 1994.
  • Six Not So Easy Pieces: Einstein's Relativity, Symmetry and Space-Time, Addison Wesley, 1997.
  • The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, Perseus Publishing, 1999.
  • The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman, edited by Jeffrey Robbins, Perseus Books, 1999.
  • Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character, edited by Ralph Leighton, W. W. Norton & Co, 2005
  • Quantum Man, Atlas books, 2011, Lawrence M. Krauss.
  • "Feynman: The Graphic Novel" Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Audio and video recordings :

  • Safecracker Suite (a collection of drum pieces interspersed with Feynman telling anecdotes)
  • Los Alamos From Below (audio, talk given by Feynman at Santa Barbara on February 6, 1975)
  • Six Easy Pieces (original lectures upon which the book is based)
  • Six Not So Easy Pieces (original lectures upon which the book is based)
  • The Feynman Lectures on Physics: The Complete Audio Collection
  • Samples of Feynman's drumming, chanting and speech are included in the songs "Tuva Groove (Bolur Daa-Bol, Bolbas Daa-Bol)" and "Kargyraa Rap (Dürgen Chugaa)" on the album Back Tuva Future, The Adventure Continues by Kongar-ool Ondar.
  • The Messenger Lectures, given at Cornell in 1964, in which he explains basic topics in physics. 
  • Take the world from another point of view [videorecording] / with Richard Feynman; Films for the Hu (1972)
  • The Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures Four public lectures of which the four chapters of the book QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter are transcripts. (1979)
  • The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1981)
  • Richard Feynman: Fun to Imagine Collection, BBC Archive of 6 short films of Feynman talking in a style that is accessible to all about the physics behind common to all experiences. (1983)
  • Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics (1986)
  • The Last Journey of a Genius, a BBC TV production in association with WGBH Boston (1989)
  • Tiny Machines: The Feynman Talk on Nanotechnology (video, 1984)
  • Computers From the Inside Out (video)
  • Quantum Mechanical View of Reality: Workshop at Esalen (video, 1983)
  • Idiosyncratic Thinking Workshop (video, 1985)
  • Bits and Pieces — From Richard's Life and Times (video, 1988)
  • Strangeness Minus Three (video, BBC Horizon 1964)
  • No Ordinary Genius (video, Cristopher Sykes Documentary)
  • Richard Feynman — The Best Mind Since Einstein (video, Documentary)
  • The Motion of Planets Around the Sun (audio, sometimes titled "Feynman's Lost Lecture")
  • Nature of Matter (audio)

A few rare photos of Feynman :










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Source : Various random internet sources

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