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Richard Feynman
1918 - 1988


Richard P. Feynman was born in Queens, New York, on May 11, 1918, to Jewish (although non-practicing) parents. By age 15, he had mastered differential and integral calculus, and frequently experimented and re-created mathematical topics such as the half-derivative before even entering college. Feynman received a bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939, and was named Putnam Fellow that same year. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1942, and in his theses applied the principle of stationery action to problems of quantum mechanics, laying the groundwork for the "path integral" approach and Feynman diagrams.

While researching his Ph.D., Feynman married his first wife and longtime sweetheart, Arline Greenbaum, who was already quite ill with tuberculosis. At Princeton, Robert W. Wilson encouraged Feynman to participate in the Manhattan Project. He did so, visiting his wife in a sanitarium in Albuquerque on weekends until her death in July 1945. He then immersed himself in work on the project and was present at the Trinity bomb test.

Hans Bethe made the 24 year old Feynman a group leader in the theoretical division. Although his work on the project was relatively removed from the major action, Feynman did calculate neutron equations for the Los Alamos "Water Boiler," a small nuclear reactor at the desert lab, in order to measure how close a particular assembly of fissile material was to becoming critical. After this work, he was transferred to the Oak Ridge facility, where he aided engineers in calculating safety procedures for material storage so that inadvertent criticality accidents could be avoided.

After the project, Feynman started working as a professor at Cornell University, and then moved to Cal Tech in Pasadena, Calif., where he did much of his best work including research in quantum electrodynamics, the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, and a model of weak decay. Feynman's collaboration on the latter with Murray Gell-Mann was seen as seminal, as the weak interaction was neatly described. He also developed Feynman diagrams, a bookkeeping device that helps in conceptualizing and calculating interactions between particles in spacetime, notably the interactions between electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons.

He later married Gweneth Howarth and had a son, Carl Richard, and a daughter, Michelle Catherine. In 1965, Feynman, along with Julian Schwinger and Shinichiro Tomonaga, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for work in quantum electrodynamics. Feynman's popular lection series was published in "The Feynman Lectures," while his personal side was captured in "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"

Feynman is also known for his work on the Space Shuttle Challenger accident investigation, shocking the world by demonstrating the failure of the O-Rings. He died February 15, 1988, at the age of 69, from several rare forms of cancer.


The theoretical work of the American physicist Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988) opened up the doors to research in quantum electrodynamics. He shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Richard Feynman was born on May 11, 1918, in Far Rockaway, a suburb of New York City. He lived there until 1935, when he left to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After receiving a bachelor's degree in physics in 1939, he went to Princeton University, where he received a Ph.D. in 1942. While at Princeton, Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project, which eventually led him to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943 to work on the atomic bomb. In 1946 he went to Cornell University, where he remained as an associate professor of theoretical physics until 1951. He spent half of that year in Brazil lecturing at the University of Rio and then became a Tolman professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology, where he stayed for more than 30 years. He had three wives and two children, Carl and Michelle.

Solves Problems in the Theory of Quantum Electrodynamics

Feynman's primary contribution to physics was in the field of quantum electrodynamics, which is the study of the interactions of electromagnetic radiation with atoms and with fundamental particles, such as electrons. Because the equations that compose it are applicable to atomic physics, chemistry, and electromagnetism, quantum electrodynamics is one of the most useful tools in understanding physical phenomena.

The field initially grew out of work done by P. Dirac, W. Heisenberg, W. Pauli, and E. Fermi in the late 1920s.

The original theory was constructed by integrating quantum mechanics into classical electrodynamics. It provided a reasonable explanation of the dual wave-particle nature of light by explaining how it was possible for light to behave like a wave under certain conditions and like a particle (a "photon") on other occasions. Dirac in particular introduced a theory that described the behavior of an electron in accordance with both relativity and quantum mechanics. His theory brought together almost everything that was known about particle physics in the 1920s. However, when the principles behind electromagnetic interactions were brought into Dirac's equation, numerous mathematical problems arose: meaningless or infinite answers were obtained when the theory was applied to certain experimental data.

Feynman found a way to bypass, though not solve, these problems. Be redefining the existing value of the charge and the mass of the electron (a process known as "renormalization"), he managed to make the "divergent integrals" irrelevant - these were the terms in the theory which had previously led to meaningless answers. Thus, while some divergent terms still exist in quantum electrodynamics, they no longer enter the calculations of measurable quantities from theory.

The significance of Feynman's contribution is enormous. He gave the theory of quantum electrodynamics a true physical meaning as well as an experimental use. The renormalized values for the electron's charge and mass provide finite, accurate means of measuring electron properties such as magnetic moment. This theory has also made a detailed description of the fine structure of the hydrogen atom possible. It also presents a precise picture of the collisions of electrons, positrons (anti-electrons), and photons in matter.

Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics in 1965, together with fellow American Julian Schwinger and Shinichiro Tomonaga of Japan, both of whom had separately developed similar theories, but using different mathematical methods. Feynman's theory was especially distinct from the other two in its use of graphic models to describe the intermediate states that a changing electrodynamic system passes through. These models are known as "Feynman diagrams" and are widely used in the analysis of problems involving pair production, Compton scattering, and many other quantum-electrodynamic problems.

Feynman was fond of using visual techniques to solve problems. In addition to his Feynman diagrams, he developed a method of analyzing MASER (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) devices that relies heavily on creating accurate pictorial representations of the interactions involved. A MASER device is one that uses the natural oscillations of molecules to generate or amplify signals in the microwave region of the electromagnetic spectrum; they are used in radios and amplifiers, among other things. Feynman's method for analyzing these devices greatly simplified and shortened the solutions, as well as brought out the important features of the device much more rapidly.

Feynman also worked on the theory of liquid helium, supporting the work of the Russian physicist L. D. Landau. Landau had shown that below a certain temperature the properties of liquid helium were similar to those of a mixture of two fluids; this is known as the two-fluid model. Feynman showed that a roton, which is a quantity of rotational motion that can be found in liquid helium, is the quantum mechanical equivalent of a rapidly spinning ring whose diameter is almost equal to the distance between the helium atoms in the liquid. This discovery gave Landau's theory a foundation in atomic theory.

Contributes to Knowledge of Quarks

Richard Feynman did work in many other areas of physics, including important work on the theory of Beta-decay, a process whereby the nucleus of a radioactive atom emits an electron, thereby transforming into a different atom with a different atomic number. His interest in the weak nuclear force - which is the force that makes the process of radioactive decay possible - led Feynman and American physicist Murray Gell-Mann to the supposition that the emission of beta-particles from radioactive nuclei acts as the chief agitator in the decay process. As James Gleick explained in Genius, Feynman also contributed to a "theory of partons, hypothetical hard particles inside the atom's nucleus, that helped produce the modern understanding of quarks." Quarks are the most elementary subatomic particles.

Feynman wrote many theoretical physics books which are in use in universities around the country, as well as a series entitled Feynman's Lectures in Physics, which he put together based on several terms of physics lectures he gave at the California Institute of Technology in 1965. The lectures presented a completely revolutionary approach to teaching university physics, providing a valuable resource to all physics majors. He also dabbled in many areas outside of physics, including drumming and drawing.

Feynman received the Albert Einstein Award in 1954, and he was warded the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal in 1973. He was a member of the National Academy of Science and a foreign member of the Royal Society in London.

Explains Why the Shuttle Exploded

In January 1986, the space shuttle Challenge rexploded above Cape Kennedy, Florida. Feynman was named to the 12-member special (Rogers) commission that investigated the accident. When public hearings began in February, the discussion quickly turned toward the effect of cold temperatures on O-rings. These rubber rings seal the joints of the solid rocket boosters on either side of the large external tank that holds the liquid oxygen and hydrogen fuel for the shuttle. Using a glass of ice water, Feynman demonstrated how slowly the O-ring regained its original shape when it was cold. Because of the O-ring's slow reaction time, hot gases had escaped, eroded the ring, and burned a hole in the side of the right solid rocket booster, ultimately causing the explosion of the space craft.

In October 1979, Feynman was diagnosed with Myxoid liposarcoma, a rare cancer that affects the soft tissues of the body. The tumor from the cancer weighed six pounds and was located in the back of his abdomen, where it destroyed his left kidney. Feynman was diagnosed with another cancerous abdominal tumor in October 1987 and died of complications on February 19, 1988.


American physicist who was born in New York City on May 11, 1918. He grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens and when he was about 10, he started to buy old radios to use in his "personal laboratory," a collection of electric gadgets and components, and by the age of 12, he was already fixing radios in his neighborhood. Feynman related a number of entertaining and revealing vignettes from his childhood and throughout his professional career in the engaging, delightful, and bestselling autobiographical work Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! This collection was subsequently followed by The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist and Tuva or Bust!: Richard Feynman's Last Journey.

Feynman studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and continued his studies at Princeton University, where he obtained his Ph.D. in physics in 1942 with a thesis supervised by John Wheeler. His thesis dealt with advanced waves, which can be described as the theory of electromagnetic waves that travel "backwards" in time. His first lecture at Princeton on the subject was interesting enough to draw an audience that included none less than Einstein, Pauli, and von Neumann.

After completing his Ph.D., Feynman moved to Cornell University in 1945 as professor of theoretical physics. There, he met Hans Bethe and became involved in the Manhattan Project. While moving to the newly constructed secret laboratory at Los Alamos, Feynman flouted military discipline with a series of quirky practical jokes and tricks. He was particularly fond of pointing out the insufficiency of the security of the Los Alamos safes inside which the plans for the atomic bomb where entrusted. To drive this point home, he taught himself how to open safes, with results amusingly recounted in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! While Feynman toiled at Los Alamos, his wife became very sick and subsequently died.

Soon after the war, Feynman was invited as a visiting professor to the University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He subsequently accepted a professorship of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology in 1950, but loved Brazil so much that one of his "conditions" was to be able to visit Brazil again. As a result, he did not actually start lecturing at Caltech until 1951. While in Brazil, Feynman lectured about electromagnetism for ten months, at the same time preparing to parade in the carnival of a samba school in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro.

Upon returning to Caltech the following year, Feynman returned his attention quantum electrodynamics Eric Weisstein's World of Physics and successfully developed the rules that all quantum field theories Eric Weisstein's World of Physics must obey. In the process, he discovered how to renormalize the theory of quantum electrodynamics Eric Weisstein's World of Physics and also invented a nice way of representing quantum interactions, now called Feynman diagrams. Eric Weisstein's World of Physics For all these contributions, especially to the renormalization of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics with Shin-Ichiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger, each of whom also contributed to the renormalization of the theory. Feynman also contributed to the theory of nuclear interactions with Murray Gell-Mann.

Feynman was always concerned about the education of physics. During his visit to Brazil, he evaluated the Brazilian educational system, writing an essay and giving a lecture about it at the end of the semester of 1950. He was also a member of the council for evaluation of books of mathematics and physics for the primary and secondary public schools of California for two years. He also invigorated undergraduate physics education at Caltech, where his four years of lectures were edited and collected into the classic three-volume textbook The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which has become an inspiration for students of physics ever since. Feynman also published a number of popularizations of physics, including QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.

After the explosion of NASA's Space Shuttle Challenger, Feynman was appointed to the council investigating the causes of the disaster. In his usual brusque and no-nonsense style, Feynman cut through the bureaucracy and identified the cause of disaster as the failure of an o-ring seal in the unusually cold launch-pad temperatures, even dunking a similar o-ring in a glass of ice water in front of other committee members to emphasize his conclusion.

In the early 1980s, Feynman developed an abdominal cancer. After a five-year fight, Feynman succumbed in 1988 at the age of 69. Feynman was the recipient of numerous awards during his lifetime, including the Albert Einstein Award (1954, Princeton) and Lawrence Award (1962). Feynman was also a member of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Science, and was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society, London (Great Britain) in 1965.











This web page was last updated on: 10 December, 2008