Richard Phillips Feynman's life and work signify the joy of discovery and the pleasure of exploring things. He demonstrated that doing science could be fun. He provided an "image of science that cut right across the stereotype". He loved people more than he loved' physics. He believed that the highest forms of understanding one can achieve are laughter and human compassion. He was an accomplished drummer. He was so fascinated with drumming that he hardly missed any opportunity to beat a rythm - whether on a wall, a table, a pot or on a pan. He enjoyed listening to African drum music. He also became an accomplished amateur artist and he could organise an exhibition on his own. And, of course, Feynman is one of the greatest physicists that the 20th century produced. He was a great problem solver even if it meant breaking a lock.
Above all Feynman was a simple man, who could laugh and make others laugh and so as Hans Bethe wrote, "More than other scientists, he (Feynman) was loved by his colleauges and his students." And as Laurie Brown and John Rigden have stated, "there is an important sense in which all modern physicists are Feynman's student." He taught his students how to think, to reject any theory if it did disagree with experimental facts and he inspired them to appreciate nature and love science. He epitomised honesty and integrity. The whole basis of the scientific pursuit of knowledge as percieved by Feynman can be seen from his following observations:
“In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compare the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.”
He was against pseudosciences. While explaining the underlying difference between real science and different forms of pseudosciences he said: “It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty – a kind leaning over backwards.
For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked – to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can – if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong – to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.”
Feynman put his views straight without mincing words. He disliked when people used the language in a phoney way. He could never appreciate philosophy and thought religion is nothing but ‘wishful thinking’. He never bothered with empty formalities. Feynman lacked respect for authority. Some of the traits of Feynman’s personality were as summed up by General Donald Kutyna: “Feynman had three things going for him. Number one, tremendous intellect, and that was well known around the world. Second, integrity…..Third, he brought this driving, desire to get to the bottom of any mystery. No matter where it took him, he was going to get there, and he was not deterred by any roadblocks in the way. He was a courageous guy, and he wasn’t afraid to say what he meant.”
Richard Phillips Feynman was born on 11 May 1918 in Manhattan, USA. He was greatly influenced by his parents. Feynman’s father Melville Feynman encouraged his son’s fascination with science in all possible ways. While not pushing in any particular direction his father would explain things about the way the world worked. Melville taught his son at a very early age ‘the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something’. To quote one of Richard’s oft-quoted anecdotes about his father:
‘See that bird?’ he say. ‘It’s a Spencer’s warbler. (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) ‘Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese it’s a Chung-Iong-tah, and in Japanese it’s a Katano Takeda. You can know the name of the bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the birds and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts!
Since his childhood he developed a habit of not taking anything for granted, to question everything, to go to the bottom of any mysteries. Here again he was helped by his father. Feynman later recalls that on being asked about the odd behaviour of a ball left lying in a playing wagon, his father replied: “That, nobody knows. The general principle is that things which are moving tend to keep on moving, and things which are standing still tend to stand still, unless you push them hard. This tendency is called ‘inertia’, but nobody knows why it’s true.”
What did he learn from his mother (Lucille Phillips)? In Richard Feynman’s words: “My mother tau9ht me that the highest forms of understanding that we can achieve are laughter and human compassion.”
Feynman was awarded Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 with Julian Schwinger and Shinitro Tomonaga for their development of quantum electrodynamics (QED), a theory describing the interaction of charged subatomic particles within electric and magnetic fields. QED combines quantum theory and relativity and asserts that charged particles interact by the exchange of photons. The theory not only describes all interactions involving photons and electrons but any interaction between light (photons) and charged particles. Feynman is best known for his invention of Feynman diagrams, which illustrate the interaction between charged particles by the exchange of virtual photons. “The diagrams”, Feynman pointed out “were intended to represent physical processes and the mathematical expression used to describe them. Each diagram signified a mathematical expression. Mathematical quantities were associated with points in space and time.” Feynman explained the superfluid behaviour of liquid helium. When liquid helium is cooled below 2.2 degrees Kelvin it behaved differently than the liquid helium above this temperature. It behaves as superfluid. It can move through capillary tubes effortlessly that is without experiencing any frictional resistance. It even climbs up the walls of the container to escape through pores which do not allow gas to pass through. He was a key figure in the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb.
To consider Feynman simply as one of the greatest physicists of this century would mean undermining his true achievements. He was one of the greatest teachers that the 20th century ever produced. The Feynman Lectures on Physics have inspired generations of students worldwide and continue to do so. There is no parallel to it not only in Physics but aJso in other disciplines of science. These lectures described Feynman’s approach to physics.
What made Feynman a great teacher? To quote David Goodstein: “For Feynman, the lecture hall was a theater, and the lecturer a performer, responsible for providing drama and fire works as well as facts and figures. This was true regardless of his audience, whether he was talking to undergraduates or graduate students, to his colleagues or the general public.”
His lectures were self-contained, they had a beginning, a middle and an end. The lectures not only provided a great mass of information, but also opportunity to go beyond the formal teaching.
In the long run what is the importance of Feynman’s scientific achievements? To quote David Goodstein: “His scientific contributions were profound. They are not ordinary. They are not similar to other peoples”. He imposed his personality and his views on the world of science; he reformulated quantum mechanics, he virtually reinvented it. And gave it to us in a form that’s still widely used throughout theoretical physics, in every field.
Feynman died on 15 February 1988.
To know more about Richard Feynman one may look up one or more of these books:
Richard Feynman by John Gribbin and Marry Gribbin, Universities Press (India) Ltd., 1998; Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman & Ralph Leighton. ww. Norton, New York, 1985; What Do You Care What Other People Think? by Richard Feynman & Ralph Leighton, WW. Norton, New York, 1988; No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman by Christopher Sykes (Editor), W.W. Norton, New York, 1994; Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics by James Gleick, Pantheon, New York, 1992; The Beat of a Different Drum by Jagdish Mehra, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994; The Feynman Lectures on Physics (3 Vols) by Richard Feynman, Robert Leighton & Matthew Sands, Addison-Wesley Redding, Massachussets, 1963; OED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, by Richard Feynman, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1985; The Art of Richard P. Feynman by Michelle Feynman, Gordon & Breach, Basel, 1995.