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Richard Feynman
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Richard Feynman

Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918February 15, 1988) (surname pronounced "fine-man") was one of the most influential American physicists of the 20th century, expanding greatly the theory of quantum electrodynamics. As well as being an inspiring lecturer and musician, he helped in the development of the atomic bomb and was later a member of the panel which investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. For his work on quantum electrodynamics, Feynman was one of the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1965.

He is also famous for his many adventures, detailed in the books Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!, What Do You Care What Other People Think? and Tuva Or Bust!. Richard Feynman was, in many respects, an eccentric person and was not ashamed of it.

Table of contents
1 Biography
2 Works by Feynman
3 Works about Feynman
5 External links


Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York; his parents were Jewish, although they did not practice Judaism as a religion. The young Feynman was heavily influenced by his father who encouraged him to ask questions in order to challenge orthodox thinking. His mother instilled in him a powerful sense of humour which he kept all his life.

Feynman received a bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939, and a PhD from Princeton University in 1942. While researching his Ph.D, he married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum, who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis; a terminal illness at that time.

At Princeton, the physicist Robert R. Wilson encouraged Feynman to participate in the Manhattan Project--the wartime U.S. Army project at Los Alamos developing the atomic bomb. He visited his wife in hospital on weekends, right up until her death in July 1945. Immersing himself in work on the project, he 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. Despite his relatively removed work on the project (consisting mostly on administering IBM punch-card computers and, in his own admission, picking locks), he became a friend of laboratory head J. Robert Oppenheimer, who unsuccessfully tried to court him away from his other committments to work at the University of California, Berkeley after the war.

After the project, Feynman started working as a professor at Cornell University. However he was unhappy there, feeling uninspired. 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 at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which included, at that time, such distinguished faculty as Albert Einstein.

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, rarely derogatorily, the 'Great Explainer', or some other similar variant.

Feynman did much of his best work while at Caltech, including research in:

He also developed Feynman diagrams, which helped in conceptualising and calculating of interactions between particles.

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. Feynman later won the Oersted medal for teaching, which he seemed especially proud of.

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. 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.

Feynman married twice more, first to Mary Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas in June, 1952. This marriage was brief and unsuccessful. He later married British Gweneth Howarth, who shared his enthusiasm for life. They remained married for life, and had a child of their own, Carl, and adopted a daughter, Michelle.

Feynman travelled a lot at this time, notably to Brazil, and 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, when working at the top-secret facility at Los Alamos, he learnt how to pick the locks of his fellow workers' filing cabinets, and how he played drums in a samba school in Brazil. Such actions got him a reputation of eccentricity.

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 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.

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.

Works by Feynman

Books on physics

Popular works by and about Feynman

Audio recordings

Works about Feynman

There are several documentaries with and about Feynman, all made in Britain for the BBC's Horizon program, and shown in the United states by PBS's Nova:

A movie was made about Feynman's life in 1996. Called Infinity and starring Matthew Broderick, the movie focused on Feynman's relationship with his first wife, Arline, with his work on the Manhattan Project serving as a backdrop for what was essentially a love story. The film received mixed reviews, however, and did poorly at the box office.

Finally, the character of Feynman was portrayed by Alan Alda in a play called QED in 2001. The play was essentially a one-man show, with only brief appearances by other characters, portraying Feynman in his office at Caltech and covering many of the stories and anecdotes included in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?

See also: Physics, Tuva


More Richard Feynman quotes at Wikiquote

External links