Richard Feynman: The Comic Physicist
By Mike Brewster
An often overlooked aspect of physics research at the highest levels is a long-standing tradition to be as whimsical as possible when describing breakthrough discoveries. Thus, we have Albert Einstein's comment that "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." Or Murray Gell-Mann's choice of "quarks" to describe the tiny subatomic particles that he discovered (Gell-Mann's source was James Joyce's Finnegans Wake). Or Richard Feynman's...well, just about everything Feynman did or said.
From lecturing students on the possibilities of reproducing all recorded human history on the head of a pin to frolicking in hot springs with fellow nudists, Feynman -- recently voted by scientists in a Physics World survey as the seventh-greatest physicist of all time (right behind Galileo) -- was also the proud holder of one of the world's great senses of play. This was a man, after all, who while working as a young member of the supersensitive Manhattan Project picked the locks on vaults containing atomic secrets and left teasing missives behind about the project's lax security.
A forerunner of celebrity physicists like Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan, Feynman's escapades masked an intense clarity of thinking, and he possessed the intellectual heft to close the circle on one of the great unsolved questions in modern physics. With two other scientists, he eventually won the Nobel Prize for research that corrected a nagging flaw in the theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED), which explains the relationship between light, magnetism, and electricity.
Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, in New York City's borough of Queens, on May 11, 1918. By the time he was 24, he had earned his undergraduate degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his PhD in physics from Princeton. Like many physicists, Feynman did his most memorable work relatively early in his career. He made his breakthrough discovery on QED in 1947, after eight years of intermittent work on the problem.
As an undergraduate at MIT, Feynman read again and again how QED wasn't completely satisfactory. The problem was that under certain conditions, the theory went haywire, assigning absurd values to certain particles. An equivalent would be a bathroom scale that read 180 pounds every morning when one stepped on it, only to give a reading of 10,000 pounds every now and then, or even an "infinite" reading.
"LIKE FALLING IN LOVE."
Feynman's solution presaged his emergence as a physicist of the people. In a series of vivid little drawings, now known as the Feynman Diagrams, he precisely illustrated how tiny pieces of matter, like electrons, were actually interacting in nature. The pithy way he communicated his discovery was noticed immediately by leading physicists around the world, and Feynman landed a prized faculty position at California Institute of Technolgy, joining Gell-Mann and other great physicists of the time.
The Feynman/Gell-Mann tandem never really took off, and the pair ended up feuding bitterly (Feynman, for instance, insisted on referring to quarks as "partons," a name another scientist had come up with). But Feynman's ability to frame his complex thoughts into pictures the world could understand made him a best-selling author and, eventually, a household name.
This acumen in presentation (Gell-Mann and others called it self-promotion) is evident in this selection from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech on Dec. 11, 1965, in which Feynman describes how he clung to his theory as a young academic: "...the idea seemed so obvious to me and so elegant that I fell deeply in love with it. And, like falling in love with a woman, it is only possible if you do not know much about her, so you cannot see her faults. The faults will become apparent later, but after the love is strong enough to hold you to her."
Since his death in 1988, the Feynman legend has only grown, with the emergence of three biographies, various collections of his drawings and writings, and several reprintings of his collection of anecdotes, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! But perhaps the words that best sum up his approach to life were his last. As Feynman lay dying of cancer, he woke up briefly from a coma to deliver this message: "This dying is boring."
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Mike Brewster is New York-based writer