May 11, 1918, is the birthdate of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, who had one of those minds that comes along once in a generation – if that frequently. He shared in the Nobel Prize in 1965 for discovering the principles of quantum electrodynamics, which predicts how all types of particles of light and matter interact with each other, or with the electromagnetic field, and produce electrical forces. Throughout his life, he was known for his wide-ranging curiosity and for the enthusiasm and creativity with which he took on intellectual challenges.
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Beyond that, his sense of humor, his rare ability to explain difficult concepts to laymen, and his general reputation as a party animal allowed him to leave a mark on the general culture more pervasive than that of the average scientific genius. (Feynman’s frequent collaborator, Murray Gell-Mann, once lamented the fact that his otherwise esteemed colleague “spent a great deal of his effort generating anecdotes about himself.”)
Richard Phillips Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, in the New York borough of Queens, and after moving around to different neighborhoods in the city during his early years, spent most of his youth there, graduating from Far Rockaway High School in 1935.
His parents were Melville Feynman and the former Lucille Phillips. Melville, born in Minsk, Belorussia, had arrived in the U.S. at the age of 5. He made his living as a salesman, but his passion was science, and he invested great effort in encouraging his son to explore the pleasures of scientific inquiry. The American-born Lucille was descended from Jewish immigrants of Polish and German background. According to Feynman’s biographer James Gleick, she bestowed her humor and story-telling skills on her son.
Jews in physics? Not if Columbia could help it
The young Richard set up a science lab in his room, tinkered with radios, and built a home burglar alarm one day when his parents were out. He taught himself advanced algebra, calculus and analytic geometry while still in high school, and in his senior year, was the top scorer, by a wide margin, in the New York University Math Championship.
His enthusiasm for science was infectious: As a teenager, he encouraged his sister, Joan, nine years his junior, to pursue her interest in astronomy, despite her parents’ resistance, and she became an astrophysicist. (He also paid her four cents a week to work as his lab assistant.)
The Feynmans were completely secularized Jews, and Richard was not only a lifelong atheist: as an adult, he preferred not to be classified as a Jew.
That didn’t stop Columbia University, however, from rejecting him for college because of his Jewish background. He went instead to MIT, where he began as a math student and ended up in physics. In 1939, he joined the Princeton doctoral program in physics, once that university overcame its initial aversion to his being a Jew. He received his doctorate in 1942 and while there, was recruited into the Manhattan Project, which was working to develop an atom bomb.
In Los Alamos, New Mexico, he worked with Hans Bethe in developing a formula for calculating the explosive force of any given fission process.
Feynman was on hand for the testing of the first bomb, on July 16, 1945. As with many of his peers, his initial alacrity to beat the Germans to developing nuclear capacity turned into ambivalence, if not regret, after the bomb was dropped on Japan.
When he entered academia, after the war, Feynman was wooed by a number of important research institutions. He was adamant that he wanted regular contact with students, and in 1950, began teaching at the California Institute of Technology, where he worked until his death.
Quantum electrodynamics is an alternative theory of forces – the forces operating between subatomic particles. For instance, it predicts what happens when two electrons meet. Classical electrodynamics says each electron has a negative electrical field and when their fields meet, they repel each other by a measurable force.
The quantum theory devised by Feynman and his fellow Nobelists Julius Schwinger and Tomonaga Shin’ichiro (each working independently) postulates (in the case of meeting electrons) that the two interact, exchange a photon particle and emerge from the interaction, producing a measurable force that Feynman mathematically defined.
Feynman developed abdominal cancer in 1979. Though with treatment he went into and out of remission, it finally killed him on February 15, 1988, when he was only 69. Shortly before his death, he played an important role in the presidential commission that investigated the causes of the 1986 explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger right after its takeoff, and helped to expose not only the direct technical factors responsible, but also serious organizational deficiencies in NASA.