Richard Feynman: The Quantum Man

Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose contemporaries thought that he had the finest brain in physics.
May 23, 2016

Richard Feynman was a Nobel prize-winning physicist whose contemporaries thought that he had the finest brain in physics. He was born on May 11, 1918, in Manhattan and grew up in Far Rockaway, N.Y., a section of Queens, on the Rockaway peninsula.

His parents were non-observant Ashkenazi Jews. His father, Melville Feynman, was a uniform salesman. Nevertheless, he tried to stimulate Richard to have an interest in science at an early age. Melville was the son of Lithuanian Jews who lived in Minsk and emigrated to the U.S. in 1895 when Melville was 5 years old. Although Melville wanted to become a doctor, the family could not afford to support his education. He tried a variety of occupations and finally settled in the uniform business.

The father of Richard’s mother (nee Lucille Phillips), Henry Phillips, was born in Poland, lost his parents at an early age, and was raised in an English orphanage where he was given the name Phillips before being sent to America. He started out as a peddler, developed a successful millinery business, and married a watchmaker’s daughter who had repaired his watch. She had come to the U.S. from Poland.  Henry and his wife Johanna developed a successful hat business, eventually moving to a large house in Far Rockaway. 

Lucille was the youngest of the five Phillips children. As the daughter of a successful businessman, she was educated at the Ethical Culture Institute, a quasi-religious organization started in 1877 by Felix Adler, the son of the rabbi at Temple Emmanuel, a Reform temple in New York. A chief belief of the Ethical Culture religion is that, if we relate to others in a way that brings out their best, we will at the same time elicit the best in ourselves. Richard’s mother is believed to have had a strong influence on his sense of humor and character — she was a great storyteller. 

Richard had one sibling, a sister Joan, born 9 years after him. Another Feynman son born between Richard and Joan died at one month of age. After moving several times, the family settled in the home of Lucille’s parents, sharing it with her sister’s family, where they survived the depression in relative comfort.

By age 10, Richard was considered a whiz kid in arithmetic. He set up a basement chemistry lab where he experimented with chemicals at age 11. He bought old broken radios at rummage sales and figured out how to fix them. One day a hotel called him to fix a radio. When he said that he was only a little boy, they said “come over anyway”. His aunt ran the hotel. He put his screwdriver in his back pocket, went to the hotel, fiddled with the radio, and saw that the knob on the rheostat was loose. With the aid of a handyman, he tightened the rheostat and fixed the radio. 

He bought a milliammeter, converted it into a voltmeter, and got lots of business because it was the Depression and he fixed radios for less. One job was very interesting. A poor man took Richard to his house where the radio was making a very loud noise. The amplifier was very hot. Then the radio quieted down and played correctly. Richard paced back and forth, and when the man asked “What are you doing?” he said “I’m thinking.” He then changed the tubes around, turned the radio on, and it played perfectly without noise. The man, initially hostile, was then very grateful and got Richard other jobs, telling people ”he fixes radios by thinking.”

At a young age Richard rejected the miracles that were part of Jewish liturgy and lore when he decided that his Sunday school teacher was not telling the truth. He also decided that he did not want to be bar mitzvahed and became a convinced atheist. In contrast, the family believed in Jewish ethics and followed a Jewish moral code related to the ethical culture teaching of Richard’s mother. Richard’s father had a keen interest in science and a strong positive influence on his son.

Richard started high school in Cedarhurst in 1931 and was considered an unusally clever boy. He was a whiz at puzzles. He was on the algebra team. He taught himself advanced mathematics, including calculus. He solved mathematical problems using techniques that he developed himself from first principles. He graduated from high school in 1935, a time when his father earned $5,000 a year. Richard got top honors in everything, including English, to the consternation of some friends. He got the best English grade by writing an essay about technology and aviation that he knew would appeal to the teacher because he used highfalutin prose.

He applied to Columbia University and MIT. Columbia rejected him because it had already filled its Jewish quota. MIT accepted him and gave him a small scholarship. During the summer before starting MIT, he worked in the kitchen of his aunt’s hotel to earn some extra money for college, and he found time to pursue his high school sweetheart, Arline Greenbaum, whom he eventually married.

Richard met Greenbaum when he was 15 and she was age 13. She was a very popular girl who played the piano, danced, and painted. After a few years, she became his girlfriend and almost a member of his family. Unfortunately, when he was in graduate school in 1941, she became ill and was eventually diagnosed as having tuberculosis involving the lymph nodes and the lungs.

Still, the two were soulmates. Feynman insisted on going ahead with his plan to marry Arline despite objections from his mother because Arline’s illness would require special care, time, and money that he did not have. The couple married in June 1942 in the city hall on Staten Island without any family or friends present. From there, Richard took Arline to the Deborah Charity Hospital in New Jersey in a borrowed car outfitted with a mattress so Arline could lie down. 

Richard started MIT as a math major, switched to electrical engineering as more practical, then switched to physics at the end of the first year after he learned more about physics. He took an advanced course in theoretical physics in his sophomore year and Professor Philip Morse offered him a private tutorial the following year. Feynman also took a course in metallurgy and lab courses that were valuable when he worked at Los Alamos. His father visited MIT in Richard’s senior year to ask Morse whether it was worthwhile for Richard to attend graduate school. Morse told Melville that Richard was the brightest undergraduate student he had ever encountered. 

Richard was offered a scholarship to Harvard for graduate school without applying based on his winning a mathematics competition. He turned down Harvard and decided to go to Princeton because that is where Einstein was. At Princeton, he was assigned to work with John Wheeler, another formidable intellect. Wheeler related later that the head of the physics department had contacted Philip Morse at MIT to learn about Richard’s religious identification. They were concerned because of the difficulty of placing Jews in jobs. Feynman apparently impressed them as not sufficiently Jewish in manner to have it get in the way. Feynman worked with Wheeler in quantum mechanics, a field of physics that concerns interactions of subatomic particles. 

After about a year of research work on quantum mechanics, Wheeler asked Feynman to give a seminar before the physics department faculty. Feynman was surprised that Einstein and another prominent physicist, Wolfgang Pauli, who was visiting from Switzerland, attended it. Pauli realized that Feynman and Wheeler were incorrect, but Einstein was more charitable, even though the concepts presented contradicted his own work on general relativity. Eventually it turned out that the ideas of Feynman and Wheeler were not correct. 

Feynman continued his work and wrote a thesis entitled “The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics” for which he received his PhD in 1942. One morning while he was still working on his thesis, Robert Wilson, an instructor in experimental physics, came to his office and told him that the United States was about to embark on a project to build an atomic bomb, and he wanted Feynman to join the project. Feynman decided he could not turn down the offer to help win the war. He worked with Wilson on the practical aspects of a design for a bomb. Then he was sent to the University of Chicago where Enrico Fermi and John Wheeler were building a nuclear reactor. Feynman had impressed Robert Oppenheimer at physics meetings in New York and at MIT. Oppenheimer, a brilliant scientist, had been chosen to lead the bomb project and was a keen judge of talent. He sought out Feynman and convinced him to move to Los Alamos with the first wave of scientists in March 1943.

While Feynman was at Los Alamos, Arline was in a special hospital in Albuquerque, an arrangement that was facilitated by Oppenheimer as part of recruitment of Feynman to the theoretic division at Los Alamos. Feynman visited Arline on weekends to the extent possible and wrote her letters frequently. The last letter on June 6, 1945 ended as follows:

“I will come this week and if you don't want to bother to see me just tell the nurse. I will understand darling. I will understand everything because I know now that you are too sick to explain anything. I need no explanations. I love you, I adore you, I shall serve you without question but with understanding. I adore a great patient woman, forgive me for my slowness to understand.  I am your husband.  I love you.”

Oppenheimer had recruited Hans Bethe to head the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos. After spending a weekend when others were away bouncing ideas off of Feynman, whose first response was: “You’re crazy”, Bethe recognized the 24 year-old Feynman’s talent and made him a group leader in the Theoretical Division. At Los Alamos Feynman had the good fortune to work closely with many of the finest physicists in the country. Feynman developed a method for solving third-order differential equations and within a month Feynman and Bethe worked out a formula for calculating the efficiency of a nuclear weapon. Eventually Feynman was put in charge of supervising all computational aspects of assembling a successful plutonium bomb. Bethe said that Feynman could do anything. He even developed electromechanical computing machines. There was a story that that an IBM computer arrived in 10 boxes. Feynman and another member of the group spent the night putting the machines together. When professionals from IBM came, they said assembling the computer had never been done before by people outside the company and that the machine worked perfectly. 

The purification of the U-235 was taking place at Oak Ridge, Tenn., and they were having trouble assaying it. In addition, there were concerns about safety because they did not know how powerful a bomb could be when the U-235 was purified and placed in water solutions. Feynman was sent to Oak Ridge to explain how the bomb works because the modus operandi up to then was to keep each group unaware of the other’s activity for security reasons. After Feynman inspected the plant, he helped to redesign it to make it safer.

At Los Alamos, there were a number of clever high school graduates with engineering ability selected to work on IBM punch card calculators, and the work was going poorly. The young men had never been told about the purpose of their work. Feynman was asked to take over the group. Oppenheimer got security clearance for Feynman to explain what they were doing. Then they realized that they were fighting a war and knew what they were doing. After that, the men then devised a better scheme, worked day and night, and invented several programs that were used. Their efficiency increased tenfold. 

At this time in 1945, Feynman and others were working at a frenzied pace.  Arline was getting much sicker. Before her death on June 16, 1945 four years after they were married, Feynman rushed to be with her, but after she died he realized that the dead no longer need help, so he gathered her possessions, arranged for immediate cremation, and returned to Los Alamos somewhat shattered to report to work the next evening. His boss, Hans Bethe, ordered him to go to Long Island for a rest. Feynman returned on July 15 and caught the bus to the desolate desert location to watch the test of the atomic device. When he saw the glow of the blast and heard the sonic boom one hundred seconds later, he realized that all the calculations he had worked so hard on had been validated.

Oppenheimer tried to recruit Feynman to the physics department at Berkeley, but Bethe who was on leave from Cornell had arranged a faculty offer for Feynman that included his time in Los Alamos as a period of leave from his new position, and Feynman accepted this position at Cornell. Unfortunately, Feynman was worn out from his tragedy and all the hard work of 12 to 16 hour days at Los Alamos. In addtion, his father died suddenly of a stroke.  Feynman went to Ithaca and was understandably depressed for some time and unable to concentrate on his research. But within a few months he restarted his research. Because his 1942 PhD thesis had not been formally published, friends insisted that he spend time writing it up for publication and it was eventually published in Reviews of Modern Physics. 

Feynman did not like the cold weather of an Ithaca winter. He also felt that the emphasis on diverse non-science fields at Cornell led to a lack of intellectual stimulation. Robert Bacher who, along with Bethe, had recruited Feynman to Cornell, moved to Caltech as head of physics. Bacher invited Feynman to give a series of lectures at Caltech and Feynman decided that Caltech was “my kind of place”.  After a 10 month sabbatical in Brazil, Feynman joined the physics faculty at Caltech in 1951 as professor of theoretical physics. He remarried in 1952, a difficult marriage that lasted only four years. In the divorce proceedings, his wife claimed that “he does calculus problems as soon as he awakens, while driving his car, and even while lying in bed at night.”  In addition to his work on quantum electrodynamics, Feynman became interested in the physics of liquid helium and in the new particles that were being discovered, such as mesons and quarks. He also tried to develop a universal theory of weak interactions.

While attending a meeting in Geneva, he met a 24 year-old English woman who was traveling around the world as an au pair, and he offered her a job as his maid in the U.S. Eventually she showed up and converted his house from that of a lonely bachelor into a home. After a year, he proposed to her and they were married. Two years later, Gweneth and Richard Feynman had a son, Carl, and Richard became a family man. After another two years, they adopted a daughter Michelle.  

In 1966, Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics. He considered refusing it in order to avoid the publicity and notoriety that came with it, but he decided that refusing it would even generate more publicity.

Feynman’s major achievements in physics include the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1965 (awarded in 1966), the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, and work in particle physics for which he proposed the parton model.

Other achievements include the development of the Feynman diagrams that are pictorial representations of mathematical expressions describing the interactions of subatomic particles in space and time. 

Feynman devised a series of lectures for teaching physics that became the standard for advanced students. He was a superb teacher. The lecture hall represented a theatre for him and he loved to perform. He played a crucial role in the development of the first complex computer: the Thinking Machine.  gave a lecture that predicted the current field of nanotechnology.

On Jan. 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded killing the seven people on board. Shortly after that, Feynman was asked to be on the committee investigating what went wrong. Although he did not want to go to Washington to do it, Gweneth persuaded him that that he should because she believed that he would find the cause of the disaster. Feynman agreed to spend six months full-time working on it. The commission was headed by the former Secretary of State William Rogers.

First Feynman went to JPL to meet with the engineers to learn all about solid fuel rockets. In Washington, Rogers said at the first meeting, they would complete the work in 120 days. Feynman’s account of it in the book, “What Do You Care What Other People Think” (a phrase Ariine used) is very revealing of the downside of Washington bureaucracy. Rogers wanted to avoid the technical investigation that Feynman proposed. Feynman insisted on going to NASA to meet with the engineers. There he learned about the engines, the orbiter, and the rubber O-rings. As pressure builds up in the rocket, the rocket wall expands, and the O-rings have to expand. The Thiokol company that made the rings had trouble with leaks of hot gas through an incomplete seal. Feynman noted contradictions in the report about the safety of the seal. The company claimed it was safe because only a few of the seals leaked on some of the flights. Feynman likened this to Russian roulette. An Air Force general who was on the commission pointed out to Feynman that the temperature at the time of the launch was 28 degrees. Films of the shuttle at lift-off showed puffs of smoke coming from the area of the seals. An engineer from Thiokol had warned NASA the night before the launch that the shuttle should not fly if the temperature was below 53 degrees because of the seal problem.

The next day the commission was to meet to continue the investigation. Feynman asked a colleague to bring a model of the O-ring that contained the rubber. Before the meeting he went to a hardware store, bought a screw driver, a pliers and a small C-clamp. At the meeting, Feynman asked for a glass of ice water. He pried loose a piece of the rubber from a model of the O-ring, put the rubber in a clamp and immersed it in the ice water.  At the appropriate time, he raised his hand to get attention, took the clamp out of the ice water, loosened it, and said “the rubber does not spring back. There is no resilience in it at 32 degrees.  I believe that has some significance for our problem.”

Eventually Feynman became the spokesman to the reporters. The commission went to NASA and saw photographs of the puffs of smoke coming through the seal. Feynman said he wanted to stay on to talk with more people, Rogers preferred that Feynman come back to Washington with the others, so Feynman said “I’ll stay”. He uncovered other problems with assembling the rocket sections. He found additional problems at Marshall Space Center related to the multiple manufacturers of different components. When the report of the commission was produced, he had an appendix that Rogers tried to suppress, but Feynman insisted that it be included without watering it down.  Hopefully the report in which he played such a crucial part led to safer space flights.

Richard Feynman died on Feb. 15, 1988 after a 10-year battle with two cancers. His legacy in physics and in American culture remains inspirational for all of those who knew him. In regard to Richard Feynman’s adult views on religion, in his Danz lecture to laymen at the University of Washington in April 1963 (published as a book entitled “The Meaning of It All”), Feynman stated that religion provides the inspiration to act moral and ethical.

Even during his terminal illness, Feynman continued to work on field theory. To quote him: “People say to me, are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics? No, I’m not. I’m just looking to find out more about the world. If it turns out there is a simple, ultimate law which explains everything, so be it; this would be very nice to discover. If it turns out it’s like an onion, with millions of layers, and we’re sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that’s the way it is. But whatever way it comes out, it’s nature and she’s going to come out the way she is.”

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