Feynman received a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939, and a PhD from Princeton University in 1942. His thesis advisor was John Archibald Wheeler. After Feynman completed his thesis on quantum mechanics, Wheeler showed it to Albert Einstein, but was unconvinced. While researching his Ph.D., Feynman married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, a terminal illness at that time; they were careful, and Feynman never contracted TB.
At Princeton, the physicist Robert R. Wilson encouraged Feynman to participate in the Manhattan Project. This was a wartime U.S. Army project at Los Alamos developing the atomic bomb. He visited his wife in a sanitarium in Santa Fe on weekends, right up until her death in July 1945. He immersed himself in work on the project, and was present at the Trinity bomb test. Feynman claimed to be the only person to see the explosion without the dark glasses provided, looking through a truck windshield to screen out harmful ultraviolet frequencies.
As a junior physicist, his work on the project was relatively removed from the major action; consisting mostly of administering the computation group of human computers in the Theoretical division, and then, with Nicholas Metropolis, setting up the system for using IBM punch cards for computation. Feynman actually succeeded in solving one of the equations for the project which were posted on the blackboards. However “They didn’t do the physics right” and Feynman’s solution was not used in the project.
After the project, Feynman started working as a professor at Cornell University, where Hans Bethe, the formulator of nuclear fusion worked. However he felt uninspired there; despairing that he had burned out, he turned to more concrete problems, such as analyzing the physics of a twirling, nutating dish, as it is being balanced by a juggler. As it turned out, this work served him in future researches. He was therefore surprised to be offered professorships from competing universities, eventually choosing to work at the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena, California, despite being offered a position near Princeton, at the Institute for Advanced Study. What, at that time, included Albert Einstein on its list of elite faculty members.
Feynman rejected the Institute on the grounds that there were no teaching duties. Feynman found his students to be a source of inspiration and also, during uncreative times, comforting. He felt that if he could not be creative, at least he could teach.
Feynman is sometimes called the “Great Explainer”; he took great care when explaining topics to his students, making it a moral point not to make a topic arcane, but accessible to others. Thus clear thinking and clear presentation were fundamental prerequisites for his attention. It could be perilous to even approach him when unprepared, and he did not forget who the fools or pretenders were. On one sabbatical year, he returned to Newton’s Principia to study it anew; what he learned from Newton, he also passed along to his students, such as Newton’s attempted explanation of diffraction.
Feynman did much of his best work while at Caltech, including research in Quantum electrodynamics. The problem for which Feynman won his Nobel Prize involved the probability of quantum states changing. He helped develop a functional integral formulation of quantum mechanics, in which every possible path from one state to the next is considered, the final path being a sum over the possibilities. Physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, where helium seems to display a lack of viscosity when flowing. 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. Weak decay, which shows itself in the decay of a neutron into an electron, a proton, and an anti-neutrino. Developed in collaboration with Murray Gell-Mann, the theory was of massive importance, and resulted in the discovery of a new force of nature.
He also developed Feynman diagrams, a bookkeeping device which helps in conceptualising and calculating interactions between particles in space-time. This device allowed him, and now others, to work with concepts which would have been less approachable without it, such as time reversibility and other fundamental processes. These diagrams are now fundamental for string theory and M-theory, and have even been extended topologically. Feynman’s mental picture for these diagrams started with the hard sphere approximation, and the interactions could be thought of as collisions at first. It was not until decades later that physicists thought of analyzing the nodes of the Feynman diagrams more closely. The world-lines of the diagrams have become tubes to better model the more complicated objects such as strings and M-branes.
From his diagrams of a small number of particles interacting in spacetime, Feynman could then model all of physics in terms of those particle’s spins and the range of coupling of the fundamental forces. But the quark model was a rival to Feynman’s parton formulation. Feynman did not dispute the quark model; for example, when the 5th quark was discovered, Feynman immediately pointed out to his students that the discovery implied the existence of a 6th quark, which was duly discovered in the decade after his death.
After the success of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman turned to quantum gravity. By analogy with the photon, which has spin 1, he investigated the consequences of a free massless spin 2 field, and was able to derive the Einstein field equation of general relativity, but little more. Unfortunately, at this time he became exhausted by working on multiple major projects at the same time, including his Lectures in Physics.
While at Caltech Feynman was asked to “spruce up” the teaching of undergraduates. After three years devoted to the task, a series of lectures was produced, eventually becoming the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics, which are a major reason that Feynman is still regarded by most physicists as one of the greatest teachers of physics ever. Feynman later won the Oersted Medal for teaching, of which he seemed especially proud. His students competed keenly for his attention; once he was awakened when a student solved the problem and dropped it in his mailbox at home; glimpsing the student sneaking across his lawn, he could not go back to sleep, and he read the student’s solution. That morning, at breakfast, he was again interrupted by a triumphant student, but he informed him that he was too late.
Feynman was a keen and influential popularizer of physics in both his books and lectures, notably a talk on nanotechnology called Plenty of Room at the Bottom. Feynman offered $1000 prizes for two of his challenges in nanotechnology. He was also one of the first scientists to realise the possibility of quantum computers. Though he never actually wrote any books, many of his lectures and other miscellaneous talks were turned into books such as The Character of Physical Law and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. He would give lectures which his students would annotate into books, such as Statistical Mechanics and Lectures on Gravity. The Lectures on Physics took a physicist, Robert B. Leighton, as full-time editor a number of years.
Feynman travelled a lot, notably to Brazil, and near the end of his life schemed to visit the obscure Russian land of Tuva, a dream that, due to Cold War bureaucratic problems, never succeeded. During this period he discovered that he had a form of cancer, but, thanks to surgery, he managed to hold it off.
Feynman had very liberal views on sexuality and was not ashamed of admitting it. In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he explains that he enjoyed hostess bars and topless dancing, and drew a decoration for a massage parlor. He also explains how he learned to play drums in acceptable samba style in Brazil (by persistence and practice). Such actions got him a reputation of eccentricity. In addition, he considered using cannabis as well as LSD because he wished to know effects of hallucinations.
Feynman served on the commission investigating the 1986 Challenger disaster. “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”Feynman was requested to serve on the presidential Rogers Commission which investigated the Challenger disaster of 1986. Tactfully fed clues from a source with inside information, Feynman famously showed on television the crucial role in the disaster played by the booster’s O-ring flexible gas seals with a simple demonstration using a glass of ice water and a sample of o-ring material. His opinion of the cause of the accident differed from the official findings, and were considerably more critical of the role of management in sidelining the concerns of engineers. After much petitioning, Feynman’s minority report was included as an appendix to the official document. The book What Do You Care What Other People Think? includes stories from Feynman’s work on the commission. His engineering skill is reflected in his estimate of the reliability of the Space Shuttle (98%), which is unhappily reflected in the 2 failures over the 100-odd flights of the Space Shuttle as of 2003. However good he was at engineering, Feynman always drew a careful distinction between science and technology.
The cancer returned in 1987, with Feynman entering hospital a year later. Complications with surgery worsened his condition, whereupon Feynman decided to die with dignity and not accept any more treatment. He died on February 15, 1988.
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