T.R. (Joe) Sundaram

Regarded by many as the greatest American-born physicist of this century, Richard Feynman was a versatile thinker, superb lecturer, consummate showman, and lover of life and nature.

When the first atom bomb burst upon the dawn sky of New Mexico at 5:29:45 A.M. on July 16, 1945, Richard Feynman may have been the only person to see the blast with naked eyes. Like all the world-renowned scientists and dignitaries who had gathered for the historic event, Feynman had been given welder's goggles to wear. But, always the rebel, he huddled instead behind the thick windshield of a truck without his goggles, reasoning that the thick glass would screen out the ultraviolet rays. Feynman had a deep grasp of what to expect that day, for he had headed up the team that performed all the tremendously complicated calculations required to prepare the first fission bomb. The pinprick of light that pierced the darkness soon grew so bright that for a brief second Feynman involuntarily looked away Then the light seemed to go out briefly, only to reappear as a brilliant fireball with various hues of color dancing through it, first white, then yellow, and then orange. An enormous black cloud of smoke and debris shot upward and gradually began to assume the now familiar mushroom shape.
Feynman felt an intense elation as months of hard work bore fruit. Yet his life was to be radically affected by the blast and its aftermath.
In subsequent years, Feynman's contributions to physics were so important that many physicists rank him as the father of the "new" physics, just as Albert Einstein was the father of an "earlier" physics. Feynman shared the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965, with Julian Schwinger and Shinichiro Tomonaga, for his contributions to the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, which deals with the interactions between light and charged particles in general and between light and electrons in particular. He also made major contributions in weak nuclear interactions and superfluidity
Much more than just a great theoretical physicist, Feynman was noted for his originality, scientific integrity, humor, joie de vivre, and showmanship. Bringing all these resources into the lecture hall, he was a masterful teacher who combined deep insights with an infectious love for and fascination with nature.

The making of a scientist

Richard Phillips Feynman was born to Melville Arthur and Lucille Phillips Feynman on May 11,1918, in New York City but grew up in the small community of Far Rockaway, on the southern shore of Long Island. A sister, Joan, who was born when, Richard was nine, was close to him and went on to become a physicist as well. Although both Melville and Lucille were born Jewish, they brought up their children in an essentially non-sectarian fashion.
· Feynman, the teacher, lecturing on planetary motion. His lectures were often electrifying, as he focused intellect, wit, fluid body movements, expressive hands and his powerfully projective personality in sharing his deep understanding and love of physics

Melville had come to the United States in 1895 as a child of five, along with his parents from Minsk in Byelorussia. As a young man, Melville had developed a keen interest in science but did not have the wherewithal to attain his dream of being a physician. After trying various odd jobs, he finally settled down as a representative of a uniform manufacturing company Even before Richard was born, Melville had told his wife, "If it's a boy, he's going to be a scientist," and he proceeded to do his best to ensure his own prediction.
Before his son was even out of the high chair, Melville had purchased a set of white and blue bathroom tiles. He would arrange them in various ways to teach Richard pattern recognition and rudimentary mathematical thinking. As the boy grew older, Melville took him to museums and read to him from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, patiently explaining things using his own terms. As Feynman would recall fondly later: "No pressure, just lovely, interesting discussions."
Melville taught Ritty (young Richard) how to think. He would tell Ritty to imagine that he encountered a visitor from Mars. He may be full of questions about Earth. He may want to know, for example, why people sleep at night. How would Ritty answer such questions?
Such nurturing and teaching had their beneficial effect. Young Richard was soon reading by himself from the Encyclopaedia Britannica and was especially fascinated by the articles on science and mathematics. He also began to learn algebra from an old textbook he had found in the attic.
Although Richard was recognized as a precocious child, he was bored with subjects in the humanities and displayed little interest in history or literature. He found English spelling to be quite illogical and was never good at it even as an adult.
Following his graduation from high school, Feynman enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where, after trying majors in math and electrical engineering, he found his niche in physics. Upon completing his undergraduate studies at MIT with distinction žn 1939, Feynman enrolled for graduate studies at Princeton University and subsequently received his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in June 1942.

The one great love

Richard Feynman and Arline Greenbaum started dating on a steady basis in high school and deepened their relationship even as Richard was away at college. After six years of dating, they became officially engaged. Although the two young lovers had few common pursuits, they shared a wacky sense of humor. Through those years of dating, Arline became well integrated into the Feynman household, and Richard and Arline fell deeply in love.
Their courtship at a distance continued when Richard enrolled for graduate studies at Princeton. During this time, Arline, who had discovered a lump in her throat and had been tired and feverish for several months, was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Upon learning the diagnosis, Richard concluded that he must marry Arline in order to properly care for her. Now, however, his parents opposed the union, fearing that Richard might contract the disease. They advised him to break the engagement, but he refused.
Thus, soon after he received his doctorate, Richard arranged for Arline to be admitted to a charitable hospital near Princeton and put her in a bed in the back of a station wagon. On their way to the hospital they were married, on June 29,1942, by a justice of the peace. Although by this time Richard was busily engaged in the Manhattan Project, he nurtured and cared for Arline. From the day of their marriage to the day of her death, Arline was to remain bedridden in hospitals.
When the Princeton scientists were moved to Los Alamos in the spring of 1943, Richard was concerned about Arline. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the project, found a hospital in Albuquerque where Arline could stay while her husband worked at Los Alamos, sixty miles to the north. Every weekend, Richard would hitchhike down from Los Alamos to be with her. During the week they would write letters to each other. Even in this strange and tragic situation, the young couple kept their wits and their sense of humor.
As the day of the trinity test approached, Arline's condition steadily deteriorated. She died on June 16,1945, three years after their marriage and just one month before that first atomic explosion. Richard was with her at the final moment, but he felt only numbness. He was surprised at his lack of emotion. The reaction did not set in until a few weeks later, when he was walking by a shop and saw a pretty dress. When he thought of how beautiful Arline would have looked in that dress, he broke down and cried.
Throughout Richard's life, Arline remained a central figure in his thoughts. She had taught him to appreciate art and music, and he continued to dream about and write letters to her. A letter written two years after her death began: "I adore you sweetheart" and continued ". . . I have met many nice girls. . ., and I don't want to remain alone-but in two or three meetings they all turn to ashes. You only are left for me. You are real. My darling wife, I adore you."
Even in such a highly emotional state, his clowning could not be suppressed. He added the postscript: "Please excuse me for not mailing this-but I don't know your new address."

Los Alamos

In a very real sense, the Manhattan Project launched Feynman's career. At Los Alamos, Feynman, the fresh, brash graduate, got an opportunity to work with some of the most illustrious names of the day in physics and mathematics: Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and John von Neumann.
Early on, Feynman found himself interacting one-on-one with Bethe, who was already a well-known and respected physicist, as Bethe explored some new ideas. When Bethe said something that Feynman did not concur with, he would openly and strongly protest. After Bethe patiently explained his reasoning, Feynman would calm down. But, when the next point of disagreement arose, the whole process would be repeated. Rather than being annoyed, Bethe was impressed by Feynman's depth of perception and developed a healthy respect for him.
Taking Feynman under his wing, Bethe made him the head of the computational group. Feynman thus became the youngest of the several group leaders. In those days, all calculations had to be done by people, using logarithmic tables and clumsy mechanical computing machines. Under Feynman, the productivity of the group soared, impressing all the senior scientists whose work depended on the computations.
The senior scientists were also greatly impressed by Feynman's ability to logically analyse any complex problem, identify the crucial elements, and succinctly state the key questions that needed to be answered. They were equally impressed by the young scientist's infectious enthusiasm for physics. Soon, Bethe was proudly proclaiming: "Feynman can do anything, anything at all." Oppenheimer wrote: "He is the most brilliant young physicist here, . . . of thoroughly engaging character and personality, . . . an excellent teacher with a warm feeling for physics in all its aspects." After the war, Bethe invited Feynman to join him at Cornell University, and Feynman readily accepted.

Unconventional thinker and `genius'

Having shared in releasing the destructive powers of atomic energy while also watching his cherished wife die, Feynman sank into a deep depression that persisted for nearly two years. He was unsure about how much of it was caused by the bomb and how much by the death of his beloved Arline. But he could no longer do any physics; his creative energies had been sapped. Nonetheless, he put on a brave front and continued to teach, which provided him some solace. Cornell provided a haven for Feynman, as it permitted him to focus on teaching without insisting that he produce research results.
Melville's death, after a stroke, in October 1946 further deepened Feynman's depression. But he neither moped nor withdrew into himself. As Bethe explained, "Feynman depressed is just a little more cheerful than any other person when he is exuberant."
Feynman finally broke the depression cycle in a typically Feynmanesque way. He challenged himself to describe in equations the wobbling movement of a spinning plate being tossed in the air by a student in a Cornell cafeteria. After much effort, he was able to show that, consistent with his observations, for a small degree of wobble, a one-to-two ratio between the wobble and spin was indeed valid. When Feynman excitedly described his results to Bethe, the other scientist listened with interest but wanted to know their practical value.
Feynman had to admit that they had no practical value. He had solved the problem because he had fun doing it. This recognition was an epiphany for Feynman. He decided that from then on, he was going to do physics just for the fun of it. Energised by his decision, he went back to problems in quantum electrodynamics that he had started working on while still at Princeton-the work that eventually brought him the Nobel Prize. Ironically, he found that the spinning-plate movement he had studied just for fun also had application to the electron-spin problem.
After four years at Cornell, Feynman tired of the wintry weather and the small-town atmosphere of Ithaca. He was also uncomfortable with the liberal-arts environment and the numerous humanities professors around him. So, when an attractive offer came from the California Institute of Technology, he readily accepted it. Feynman remained at Caltech for the rest of his life, and it was there that he did his most productive work.
At Caltech, the legend of Feynman became firmly established. As he displayed his intuitive brilliance in mathematics and keen insight into physics, the word genius came to be increasingly associated with him.

The brilliant teacher

His father's early training was invaluable to Feynman in his teaching career. More than anything, Melville had instilled in him a great sense of wonder and joy at the beauty of nature and a burning desire to share that feeling with others. Listening to a Feynman lecture was a truly electrifying experience. On stage, he was all motion, just like the atoms he was so fond of talking about. He would strut across the stage like a dancer. His arms and hands would move in elaborate and graceful curves, acting out his words. His voice would rise and fall to make points. In short, he commanded attention. One former student described the experience of attending a Feynman class as being akin to watching a Broadway play.
And yet, students also had another saying: A Feynman lecture was like a Chinese meanwhile it was immensely pleasurable when you were experiencing it, an hour later you could not remember much about it. That is, while he was lecturing, the students were swept along with Feynman's enthusiasm, and the steps he used to describe a difficult problem appeared so clear. Yet later, when they would try to reconstruct his chain of reasoning, it was no longer as apparent. In a large sense, that was also part of Feynman's greatness as a teacher: making a difficult problem appear easy
Feynman was invigorated by teaching. The often profound questions students posed would reinforce his own inquiring mind and provide sources for research.
"Teaching and students keep life going," he once wrote. "I would never accept a position in which  somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don't have to teach. Never."

· Feynman, the theoretical physicist, speaking with one of the pioneers of modern physics, Paul A.M. Dirac, during the International Conference on Relativistic Theories of Gravitation held in Warsaw, Poland, in 1962.

Feynman also believed that he would be remembered most as a teacher When a series of his lectures was collected and published by Caltech as Feynman's Lectures on Physics, it became an immediate classic and sold well throughout the world. Originally aimed at freshman and sophomore students at Caltech, the book has been most highly valued by physics teachers, who find inspiration in it for their own lectures. Thus, Feynman can rightfully be called a teacher of teachers.

A curious character

One of Feynman's most endearing qualities was his incessant curiosity about the marvels of nature and his ability to see from a fresh perspective. Feynman delighted in observing ordinary natural phenomena and in reasoning them out, phenomena that most people, including many scientists, would not even notice. When one has learned to explain simple things, Feynman would say, one has learned what an explanation is; that is, one has gained an understanding of science itself.
        Feynman was also a "curious" character in the other sense of that word. People who met Feynman for the first time were at once impressed by his brilliance and amazed by his clowning. Then the physicist Freeman Dyson met Richard Feynman at Cornell, soon after World War II he recorded his impressions: `half genius, half buffoon." Later, after Dyson had gotten to know Feynman well, he revised that assessment to "all genius, all buffoon." When the distinguished writer C.P Snow met Feynman, he thought it was bizarre: "Rather as though Groucho Marx was suddenly standing in for a great scientist."
Feynman also conversed in "street language" and never used high-sounding words or phrases. Indeed, his sentences were often quite ungrammatical. The great German physicist Wolfgang Pauli once wondered about Feynman: `Why does this intelligent young man talk like a bum?" Feynman delighted in hearing such descriptions of himself. Bethe thought that Feynman often "affected a Brooklyn accent and attitude" in a deliberate attempt "to cover up his really delicate soul." Indeed, one can easily speculate that he was using buffoonery to mask his ever-present grief at the loss of Arline.
It is perhaps a commentary on Feynman's genius and self-confidence that even as he continued to use street language he could, when he wanted to, speak quite eloquently (and grammatically) and could even write decent poetry. In his later years, Feynman made a genuine attempt to be good at the things that were important to Arline. He took up art and produced some very good sketches and paintings.

`We love you Dick'

Just as Feynman broke out of technical slump by deciding to do physics only for fun, he appears to have decided that the best way to recover from the loss of his beloved Arline was to be involved with other women only for fun. He began breaking every prevalent scruple and more. He dated undergraduates, picked up bar girls, and even seduced the young wives of graduate students. He acquired a reputation as a notorious womanizer who seduced women with great speed and then abandoned them almost as quickly. As in his other endeavors, Feynman himself began creating a legend by telling stories, even to potential female targets, of his sexual exploits.
When he tried to settle down by marrying, in 1952, Mary Louise Bell, whom he had met in the Cornell cafeteria, the two discovered they were opposite in every respect. Mercifully, the marriage ended after four years.
While on a European trip in 1958, Feynman met Gweneth Howarth, a domestic servant who, at twenty-four, was sixteen years his junior. He tried to convince her to come to America to work for him as a housekeeper, which she eventually did. The two fell in love and were married in 1960. Gweneth brought much needed social stability into Richard's life, and their marriage remained a happy and tranquil one until his death in 1988. Gweneth also gave Richard an experience he had not enjoyed before-she made him a father. A son, Carl, was born to them in 1962. Six years later they also adopted a baby girl, Michelle.
Feynman, the Nobel laureate, brought one measure of scientific authority to the Rogers Commission that investigated the disastrous explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Feynman's investigative approach soon diverged from the commission's procedures, however. Not content to gather information from briefings by managers, he spoke directly to the technical people who had designed, built, and operated the shuttle and its launch craft.
Operating at times against the wishes of the commission chairman, Feynman gathered firsthand information about every problem encountered during the shuttle's history; he became convinced that the explosion was caused by faulty O-rings. In characteristic fashion, he stole the commission's show when he gave a dramatic and persuasive demonstration of cold weather's adverse effects on the seals.
Toward the end of his life, Feynman suffered from several rare forms of cancer, and his kidneys were also failing. He died on February 15,1988, at the age of sixty-nine. The morning after his death, his students hung a huge banner from the 10-story library at Caltech. It simply said "We love you Dick." Richard Feynman would have been pleased and moved by that simple eulogy.

T.R. (Joe) Sundaram is a scientist / engineer who has written extensively both in scientific journals and in popular publications. He lives in Columbia, Maryland.

Additional Reading

Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton, "What Do You Care What Other People Think?": Further Adventures of a Curious Character W W Norton, New York,1988.
James Gleick, Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics, Pantheon, New York,1992.
Christopher Sykes, No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, W W Norton, New York,1994.

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