Saturday, November 25, 2006


Richard Phillips Feynman, the 1966 Nobel laureate in Physics was born on May 11, 1918. He died of cancer in 1988. He was the most talked about scientist of the second half of the 20th century. What Einstein was to the first half he was to the second half. When he was young he could not decide whether he wanted to be a comedian or a scientist. He combined the two successfully as he grew up. Is that the reason for his being so famous? But then as David Goodstein, Professor of Physics at Caltech says,
'Feynman is a person of historic proportions, he deserves the kind of attention that he has gotten.'

Feynman’s father had his own way of teaching his young son. He would point to a bird and say something of this kind.
‘A bird is known by different names in different parts of the world. One may know all its names. But this is not important. You still do not know about the bird. The important thing is what it does and how it does it?’
No wonder Feynman was curious and inquisitive.
Picture Courtesy - Wikipedia

Feynman thought English to be a dippy subject and had a lifetime disdain for philosophy. He dismissed religion, which seemed to him to be based on wishful thinking. He talked straight, meant what he said and was genuinely confused if that seemed to upset other people. He was good at Mathematics: a star in the school math’s team. But he left it. He thought the only thing you could do by way of a career in mathematics was to teach it to someone else. As an initial overreaction, seeking something more practical he switched to Electrical Engineering and then shifted to the middle path of Physics. Feynman graduated from MIT and wanted to work for his Ph.D. there but moved to Princeton instead. He would later comment,
'I learned the world is bigger and there are many good places.'

It is interesting to note how he got down to the idea, which won him the Nobel Prize. During the Second World War he worked at Los Almos developing the atom bomb. He had a few offers, but went to Cornell. The reason was simple. It was where Bethe worked. They had got along well at Los Almos. One day he was in the Cafeteria when one of the students, who was fooling around, threw a plate into the air, spinning it like a Frisbee. It had red medallion of Cornell on it. The plate wobbled and spun. The medallion went round at a different rate from the wobble. Intrigued, Feynman went out to calculate the relationship between the wobble and the spin, which was 2:1. It came out of a complicated equation. When people asked him why he did it, he said,
'For fun. It has no importance.'
But he was wrong. He was stuck with a problem about the spin of electrons. The equation with which Feynman played while calculating the wobble of the plate was relevant to the problem of the electron’s spin. He again started looking into his old problem with a new insight. This contributed to his theory, which won him the Nobel Prize.

By 1950 Feynman, still at Cornell, had done enough physics to go down in history as one of the greatest physicist of the 20th century. But he was not content. He wanted to conquer new fields of physics. It was time to move on. He shifted to Caltech, a place with a warmer climate.

In the sixties, undergraduates at Caltech were being taught courses along the lines laid in 1940. Classical physics in the first two years and interesting stuff like Relatively, Quantum theory, and Atomic Physics in the third year. They thought of changing that and got Feynman to give lectures to the undergraduates and to make a final decision on the contents. No other great Physicist ever did that. But Feynman took up the challenge. He accepted it on the ground that he would do it only once. The period spread from September 1961 to May 1963.

These were special lectures. They had to be preserved for posterity. This was done. Feynman gave two lectures a week and devoted himself full time to their preparation and presentation during rest of the week. He planned everything in advance but had no formal notes, just a single sheet of paper with key words written on it to remind him of the flow of the presentation.

He was a great teacher and an excellent communicator. For him the lecture hall was a theatre, and the lecturer a performer, responsible for providing drama and fireworks. His lectures including the jokes were carefully planned in advance. Feynman's lectures lived up to his reputation. They were like entertainment shows with a beginning, middle and an end. The three red books in which they are published are a must for anyone interested in physics at the undergraduate level.

Feynman is remembered in many ways:
  • The boy who fixed radios by thinking;1
  • The man who enjoyed doing his calculations in topless restaurants;2
  • One who cracked safes during his stay in Los Almos during the Second World War;3
  • The bongo player;4 and
  • Of course the man who publicly demonstrated on the TV that the cause of Challenger disaster on 28 January 1986 when the space shuttle exploded was due to the effect of cold on the booster rocket rubber sealing.5
What kind of person was he? Two instances may explain his personality:
  • Feynman at 21 was assigned to John Wheeler then 28 at Princeton. Wheeler had not won Nobel Prize but nevertheless  was pompous and self-important. He fixed time once in a week for Feynman. At their first meeting he took out a golden stop watch from the inner pocket of his three-piece suit and kept it on the table. Feynman should know when his time was up. Before their next meeting Feynman purchased a watch. It was a cheap one. That was the only watch he could afford. At their next meeting he placed it by the side of the expensive watch. His time was as important as Wheeler’s time. Both of them saw the humour and burst into laughter. Their relationship was never formal. Discussions turned into laughter, laughter into jokes and jokes into original ideas.
  • The second instance - somewhat unbelievable-one thought that it only happened in the fantasy world. Feynman was in love with a girl from his school days -Arline. They decided to marry after he finished with his studies and had a steady job. He was still doing his Ph.D. and then Arline got ill. She had TB, a fatal disease in those days. She had five years to live. Feynman came under enormous pressure from his family and friends not to marry her. They could only have a limited physical relationship and could not even kiss for fear of contagion. He still decided to go ahead with the marriage as soon as he finished his Ph.D. By the time he finished it Arline was hospitalized. But he did marry her. Matthew Brodevick has directed a movie ‘Infinity’ based on this instance.

Feynman’s life was full of anecdotes. If one is to write about them one could write a book. This could be the reason for so many books on him in such a short time.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman & Ralph Leighton
  • What Do You Care What Other People Think? by Richard Feynman & Ralph Leighton
  • Richard Feynman-A life in Science’ by John Gribbin & Mary Gribbin; published by Penguin Books.
  • Tuva or Bust! by Ralph Leighton
  • No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman; edited by Christopher Sykes
  • Most of the Good stuff; edited by Laurie Brown & John Rigden
  • Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics by James Gleik
  • The Beat of The Different Drum; by Jagdish Mehra
  • Do you have time to think?; collected letters of Michell Feynman (This book was published since writing of this article).
All of them are very enjoyable reading. The books are worth every paisa that they cost.

1As a kid Feynman used to fix radios. One day a man asked him to fix his radio, which used to make noise when switched on but settled down when warmed up. The young Feynman instead of touching the radio started pacing up and down. When asked, he said that he was thinking. He realised that reversing the two valves would solve the problem. This he did and the radio started working perfectly. That is how he got this reputation.

2Feynman would often go to a topless bar in Pasedena and would work on a problem of Physics or sketch. The police raided the bar and an attempt was made to close it down. The owner asked his loyal customers to testify that there was nothing lewd or obscene. All but Feynman refused to do so. It made headlines. ‘Caltech’s Feynman Tells Lewd Case Jury He watched Girls While Doing His Equation.’

3This he would do for fun. Military authorities would find nothing missing from the safe but a paper with ‘Guess who?’ written on it.

4He used to play bongo well. His second marriage was not successful. They were divorced. Extreme cruelty was the only ground of divorce. It is for this reason his second wife testified, that his ‘bongo drumming made a terrible noise and not only did he began working on Calculus problems in his head as soon as he awoke but also while driving his car, sitting in his room and while lying in bed at night’
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