I should say right at the start, Richard Feynman is my scientific hero. He was one of the most naturally gifted communicators of complex topics and ideas that I can think of, a born communicator of his subject. I first came across him when I was 17, seeing him in the now famous BBC Horizon interview “The Pleasure of finding things out”.
In fact, a recent BBC Horizon programme, “The fantastic Mr. Feynman” referred to him as “the greatest communicator of science the World has ever seen”. Quite an accolade! I will do a separate blog about this programme and some of the interesting points about Feynman which it raised in the near future.
Feynman is in this list for his work on Quantum Electro Dymanics (QED), the theory we have which describes the behaviour of electrons. In 1947/48 Feynman produced a method to be able to make sensible calculations from the Quantum Mechanical theory of the motion of electrons which had been laid down in the 1920s by Schrödinger, Heisenberg and Dirac. In 1965 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics in recognition of this work.
He is generally recognised as one of the towering intellects of 20th Century physics. Because he was such a fun and crazy character, it is sometimes easy to overlook his important contributions to 20th Century physics. Instead we get lost in the stories of cracking safes at Los Alamos, or playing bongos in the Rio de Janeiro carnival or sketching strippers in topless clubs in Pasadena.
Hans Bethe, who won a Nobel Prize himself in 1967 for his work on the triple-alpha process within stars, referred to Feynman as “a magician”. This is the quote with which he introduces Feynman on the back cover of Feynman’s autobiography
And this is a quote from Brian Clegg’s book “Light Years”, in his introduction to the last chapter on Quantum Electro Dynamics (QED), the theory for which Feynman won his Nobel Prize.
Feynman’s brief biography
Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, New York, in 1918. His father was a military uniform salesman. Feynman showed early brilliance in mathematics, and went to the Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT) to major in Physics. From MIT he went to Princeton to work on his PhD. He entered Princeton with an unprecedented full marks in the Physics and Mathematics Graduate Entrance exams. Whilst finishing his PhD thesis he was invited to join the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, to help develop the atomic bomb. He took charge of the “computing” team, manual calculations which were necessary to develop the bomb and predict its power etc. He got the computing team to work on problems in parallel, so the team went from making 3 complex calculations a year to 3 every month, a factor of 10 improvement.
After the war, Feynman took a position as Professor at Cornell University. He worked with Hans Bethe, with whom he had worked at Los Alamos. It was at Cornell that he did the work which eventually won him the Nobel Prize. In 1950 he went on a sabbatical to Brazil, and never returned to Cornell, instead taking up a position at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he remained for the rest of his life. He died in 1988 of cancer, but thankfully not before he had shared many of his crazy antics in life in his best selling autobiography “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman”
In this clip, which is the start of the BBC Horizon interview called “The pleasure of finding things out”, Feynman talks about how a scientist can, in some sense, gain a deeper appreciation of a flower than a non-scientist, because a scientist can appreciate the complexity of the flower at a deeper level than just its aesthetic beauty, and hence appreciate the flower at multiple levels.
The entire BBC Horizon interview “The pleasure of finding things out” is available via YouTube, if you do a search for it.
Does Feynman deserve to be in this list? If so, would he get into a “top five”?
You can read more about Richard Feynman and the other physicists in this “10 best” list in our book 10 Physicists Who Transformed Our Understanding of the Universe. Click here for more details and to read some reviews.