11 May 1918 was the birthday of Richard Feynman – one of the leading physicists of the 20th Century – whose work in physics, and the public communication of his ideas, was to have a massive impact on science that continues to reverberate into today’s world.
He showed an early interest in science, and by the age of ten he was conducting physics experiments within the family home. A prodigious talent in mathematics emerged when he was only seventeen and won a prize in a prestigious national mathematics competition and he later achieved the unprecedented feat of a perfect score in the entrance exam for Princeton University.
He married his first wife Arlene in 1942, after she was diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis. Soon after he joined up with the Los Alamos team as a member of Project Manhattan that consisted of a galaxy of scientific stars assembled to oversee the generation of the first-ever nuclear explosion. Soon after his wife died,
leaving him devastated, and he threw himself into his work, perhaps as some form of distraction from his personal tragedy.
After the successful atomic detonations over Japan in 1945, Feynman became extremely depressed as a result of having contributed to such a lethal event,
but recovered his spirits when he was made Professor of Physics at Cornell University soon after the War.
He became engrossed in one of the main areas of physics at the time – quantum electrodynamics (QED) – that was to become an important part of the theory of quantum mechanics.
His invention of “Feynman diagrams” was a big step forward here, as well as in the more general area of the visualisation of physics principles.
In 1965, as a Professor at Caltech, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, along with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, for his contribution to quantum electrodynamics.
Another facet of his brilliant career had begun to unfold with his televised public lectures on physics that were enormously popular. Then in 1985 he published a book “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman”, a collection of personal anecdotes, some humorous and others much deeper, that became a runaway best seller.
Feynman became centrally involved in the investigation into the Space Shuttle “Challenger” disaster of 1986, when he famously demonstrated to the Rogers Commission of Enquiry that the rubber “O” ring seal around the solid rocket booster joints could fail in low temperatures.
Richard Feynman died of kidney failure on 15 February 1988. In a poll of 130 leading international physicists conducted by the British academic journal Physics World, Feynman was ranked within the top ten physicists of history.
“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled”. – Richard Feynman, Appendix F to the Rogers Commission Report into the Challenger Disaster.
By: R. Whitaker
Image: Portrait of Richard Feynman taken for the Nobel Foundation, 1965, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.