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who was richard p feynman
Who was Richard P. Feynman?
  • American physicist, born May 11, 1918 in New York City. At age 10, started buying old radios to use in his "personal lab," a collection of electric gadgets & components. By age 12, he was fixing radios in his neighborhood. Physics BS, MIT(taught by J.C. Slater) PhD (1942), Princeton(taught by John Wheeler). Thesis on advanced waves, which can be described as the theory of electromagnetic waves that travel "backwards" in time. Also the “path integral formulation of Quantum Mechanics”.
  • His first Princeton lecture on his thesis was interesting enough to draw an audience that included Einstein, Pauli and von Neumann.
  • After his PhD, he moved to Cornell in 1943 as professor of theoretical physics. There, he met Hans Bethe & became involved in the Manhattan Project. At the newly constructed secret lab at Los Alamos, he flouted military discipline with a series of practical jokes & tricks. He was fond of pointing out the insufficiency of the security of the Los Alamos safes inside which the plans for the atomic bomb where entrusted.

To emphasize his point, he taught himself how to open (“crack”) safes, with results amusingly told in the book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

  • Tragically, while he was working in secret at Los Alamos, his first wife got sick & died (tuberculosis).
  • After the war, he was invited as a visiting prof. to the U. of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In 1950, he moved to Cal Tech.
  • He loved Brazil so much that one of his "conditions" for accepting the Cal Tech job was to be able to visit Brazil again. While in Brazil, he lectured about electromagnetism for 10 months, at the same time preparing to parade in the carnival of a samba school in Copacabana, Rio de Janeiro. There,he also learned how to play the bongo drums!
  • On returning to Cal Tech he worked on quantum electrodynamics & developed rules that all quantum field theories must obey. He also discovered how to renormalize the theory of quantum electrodynamics & also invented a pictorial way of representing quantum interactions, now called Feynman diagrams.

For these contributions, & for the renormalization of quantum electrodynamics, he shared the 1965 Physics Nobel Prize with Shin-Ichiro Tomonaga & Julian Schwinger. He also contributed to the theory of nuclear interactions with Murray Gell-Mann.

  • He was always concerned about physics education.

During his visit to Brazil, he evaluated the Brazilian educational system. He was a member of the council for evaluation of books of math & physics for the public schools of California for 2 years. He invigorated undergraduate physics education at Cal Tech, where his years of lectures were edited & collected into the 3-volume book The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which has become an inspiration for students of physics ever since. He also published a number of popularizations of physics, including QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.


After the explosion of NASA's Space Shuttle Challenger, he was appointed by the President to the council investigating the causes of the disaster. In his usual brusque& no-nonsense style, he cut through the bureaucracy & identified the cause of disaster as the failure of an o-ring seal in the unusually cold launch-pad temperatures, even dunking a similar o-ring in a glass of ice water in front of other committee members to emphasize this.

  • He was one of the first physicists to suggest what we now call nanotechnology & he invented that term!
  • He also suggested quantum computing.
  • In the early 1980s, he unfortunately developed an abdominal cancer. After a five-year fight, he died in 1988 at age 69.
  • He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Albert Einstein Award (1954, Princeton) & Lawrence Award (1962). He was a member of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Science, & was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society, London (Great Britain) in 1965.

Among the many books he wrote were those that related a number of entertaining & revealing short stories from his childhood & in his professional career. These include the already mentioned bestselling autobiographical wor

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

followed by

What Do You Care what Other People Think?

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

andTuva or Bust!: Richard Feynman's Last Journey.


He also wrote several more technically oriented books, but for the non-scientist. His idea was to try to get the non-scientist to realize the beauty and the excitement of physics. Among these are:

Six Easy Pieces and Six Not So Easy Pieces.

  • Some recordings (audio & video) of him playing the bongos can be purchased:

For example:

The Safecracker Suite: Drumming and

Story Telling by Richard Feynman