Remembering Richard Feynman

Remembering Richard Feynman


“The first principle is that you must not fool
yourself and you are the easiest person to fool”

In the world of physics, the twentieth century was marked by three seminal theories of nature and reality: Special Relativity, General Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics. Richard Phillip Feynman was born on the 11th of May, 1918. His childhood home was located on the outskirts of New York. He was born to a Jewish family which was neither poor nor rich. At the age of ten, Feynman had his own science laboratory at home where he used to tinker with old radios and experiment with physics. His approach towards understanding, from the very beginning, was intuitive and subtle, unlike a boy ruled by the tyranny of conventional wisdom. In his school days while he learnt trigonometry, Feynman was indifferent to the usual symbols of different functions to such an extent that he created his own set of symbols. He would use a sigma (Σ) with a small x in the subscript for sin(x) as to him it looked more to be sine times x. These symbols didn’t work while he taught his friends trigonometry and eventually, he had to give up using his own symbols.
When Feynman was seventeen, he won a maths competition in New York and from there it became clear that this was the subject in which he was gifted. But to be simply a mathematician was not in his nature. More precisely, in Mark Martin’s words, “His intellectual vector had its overwhelming component on the physics axis”. In 1935, he was awarded a placement at MIT from where he graduated with a degree in Physics in 1939. Although Feynman desired to continue as a graduate student at MIT, his professor didn’t let him stay there. Questioning his professor, Feynman said that MIT was the best place to do Physics. In response to this, his professor told him that he wanted him to see how the rest of the world looks like. Feynman then joined Princeton and earned his doctorate in 1942.
During the second world war, the USA started working on the development of an atomic bomb at Los Alamos. This project was entitled “The Manhattan Project” and for this purpose a laboratory, Los Alamos Laboratory, was established which executed its experiments under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer. Feynman gives an account of his work and experiences at Los Alamos in his semi -autobiographical book, ‘Surely you are joking Mr Feynman’. At that time, he was a doctoral student at Princeton and was intimated about the project by Bob Wilson, an American physicist, who asked him to join a meeting regarding the project. Feynman’s anticipation of Hitler making a bomb before the US made him immediately accept Wilson’s offer. The job at hand for the members from science was to separate the isotopes of Uranium. Feynman was assigned the theoretical work. With his unique approach to complex problems, he became the group leader in the theoretical division. During his stay at Los Alamos, Feynman frequently went to see his wife, who had been diagnosed with TB, until her death in 1945. At the Trinity nuclear test, Feynman witnessed the detonation of the first atomic bomb with the difference that he was the only one to observe it through a windshield of a truck, without using welding goggles.
In 1950, Feynman became professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology – Caltech, where he spent the rest of his career. At Caltech he did some spectacular work. He explored the physics behind the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium and developed a model of weak decay. Along with it, he tackled the problem of infinites appearing in quantum electrodynamics (QED), in the most revolutionary and strange way. He invented simple little diagrams which proved to be a brilliant way of avoiding the complicated calculations required for QED. These we now know as the Feynman diagrams. He also immersed himself in speculating on the nature of all the four forces of nature, as John and Merry write in their book on Feynman, “Nobody else has made such influential contributions to the investigation of all four of the interactions”. Feynman was also one of the first scientists who predicted the possibility of quantum computers.
The fact that distinguished Feynman from the rest of the scientific world was his idiosyncratic approach towards understanding novel concepts. “I was an ordinary person who studied hard”, Feynman in his own words says. Feynman believed in a systematic approach of learning and today we have one of the famous techniques named after him called the Feynman Technique. This is a four-step process to understand anything in an effective way. The first step is to scribble the name of the concept you want to learn. Then in the second step, write in detail about the concept in a simpler language and explain it to yourself as if you are teaching someone. The third step involves identifying the problematic areas and reviewing the source material. Finally – the test of your understanding – teach it to a person not familiar with the concept. This technique is not limited to Physics and Mathematics only but works well with every discipline.
Feynman has been a great explainer in the sense that he simplified every seemingly intricate concept. In the later years of his life, he was enthusiastically teaching young minds at Caltech. In the year 1960, he was approached by two professors, Robert Leighton and Matthew Sands, for revising the curriculum of physics for freshmen. Being always welcoming to the young and the curious, he accepted this tedious task, and with three years of constant devotion his work finally emerged in the form of a series of lectures in a set of three bound textbooks, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Many of his profound lectures were also transformed into books like, Lectures on Gravitation, The Feynman Lectures on Computation, Statistical Mechanics, Character of Physical Law, and a book on QED. In the year 1965, Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize along with Julian Schwinger and Shinichiro Tomonaga for their ground-breaking work in Quantum Electrodynamics.
Unlike other Nobel wining scientists, Feynman described his work as being fun to him and its prize being the pleasure of finding things out. In an interview to the BBC, Feynman revealed that despite all his important contributions to science, he never actually did them for the sake of their importance. Physics and mathematics were fun to him, a playfield as he would call them. Those who knew him closely knew a soul that was well versed with the beauty of nature and the wonders of art. He was outspoken but loyal, sceptical but also determined to find the truth. He became even more famous after his death in the year 1988, after struggling for a long time against cancer. Two of his best-selling semi-autobiographies – “Surely you are joking Mr Feynman!” and “What do you care what other people think?” published around his dying year, became the reason of his everlasting popularity.

The writers are students of physics at AMU

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