Richard Feynman, 1918-1988CHJ and SHJ Humanist of the Year • The Man • His career • His ideas By Dave Shafer CHJ
Richard Feynman was born in 1918 and grew up in Far Rockaway, Queens.
He had a sister, Joan, who – like him – grew up to be a professional physicist
Both were heavily influenced by their father Melville, a salesman with astrong interest in science. They got their great sense of humor from theirmother Lucille. The parents came from Poland and Russia.
―You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.‖ - A lesson learned from his father, on their many walks together.“Car tires grip the road because of friction” tells you nothing about tires, the road, orfriction. There is no information in that sentence. You may as well say that tires gripthe road because they grip the road. This is not a true explanation of anything.
This lesson from his fatherin careful observation wouldinfluence Feynman in severalways. It made him self-reliant and he did not like toaccept the math and physicstheories of others without firstderiving them himself, usinghis own methods. This led tosome new and unusualderivations by Feynman ofwell-known physical laws.
Like Einstein and some other great physicists, Feynman was a late talker and did not utter a single word until he was almost 3 years old. His family, Ashkenazi Jews, was not observant and he declared himself an atheist early in his youth. In high school Richard was tested for IQ and came out at ―only‖ 125. That was probably because of poor verbal skills or very little interest in non-science topics. In the year 1933, in which he turned 15, Feynman taught himselftrigonometry, advanced algebra, infinite series, analytic geometryand differential and integral calculus.
Feynman was anatheist in a religioussense but had theequivalent of anotherreligion, in his verypassionate devotionto math and science,especially math.
Feynman was a skeptic like this lady,about any claims without hard evidenceto back it up.
Feynman couldsee that scienceand religionhave alwayshistoricallybeen at odds.
He could also seepeople’s chutzpah inthinking that anyparticular religionwas unique, and notjust the result of someaccidents of history,real or imagined.
―The first principle isthat you must notfool yourself - andyou are the easiestperson to fool.‖Richard Feynman,Caltechcommencementaddress, 1974
In his last year in high school, Feynman wonthe N.Y.U. Math Championship; the largedifference between his score and those of hisclosest competitors shocked the judges.He applied to Columbia, but was not accepted.Instead he attended M.I.T. where he received aBachelor’s degree in 1939, and in the same yearwas named a Putnam Fellow. While there,Feynman took every physics course offered,including a graduate course on theoreticalphysics while only in his second undergraduateyear. He obtained a perfect score on the graduateschool entrance exams to Princeton inmathematics and physics—an unprecedentedfeat—but did rather poorly on the history andEnglish portions. Feynman was just starting toshow signs of becoming what some have calledthe Elvis Presley of science.
Most of the surrounding medical schools (Cornell, Columbia, Pennsylvania and Yale) had rigid quotas in place. In 1935 Yale accepted 76 applicants from a pool of 501. About 200 of those applicants were Jewish and only five got in. "The deans instructions were remarkably precise: "Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all.―‖ As a result Jonas Salk and hundreds like him enrolled in N.Y.U. instead. Jonas Salk’s experience Feynman’s parents sent him to Sunday school to learn Hebrew, but the emphasiswas on prayer, which turned him off. The correspondence that preceded hisacceptance to Princeton University as a graduate student in 1939 is interesting.Princeton at that time still operated according to the policy which limited the numberof Jews, and Feynmans professors at MIT, where he did his bachelors degree, had towork hard to convince the Princeton administration that this particular Jew ought tobe admitted. "He is not like other Jews," they wrote. Proceedings of theappointment committee at the University of Zurich show that the same argument wasresorted to when Albert Einsteins professorship was being reviewed.
This was Richard Feynman nearing the crest of his powers. At twenty-three … there was no physicist on earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science. It was not just a facility at mathematics…Feynman seemed to possess a frightening ease with the substance behind the equations, like Albert Einstein at the same age, like the Soviet physicist Lev Landau -but few others. — James Gleick, “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”After leaving Princeton Feynman really hit his stride
Like many physicists, Feynman was dismissive of the level of intelligence required for other disciplines. But he was not dismissive of the arts if you were a creative artist.―The theoretical broadening which comes from having manyhumanities subjects on the campus is offset by the generaldopiness of the people who study these things...‖(Feynman quote)
He studied drawing and painting for very many years.Feynman drawing at easel
He started takingart lessons at theage of 44 and thencontinued with artthe rest of his life.Here are some ofhis pictures.
Feynman was a real ham and loved to perform – on the bongo drums,juggling, even on a unicycle. He went out of his way to cultivate a certainpublic image of himself. A rather adolescent one. He also loved practicaljokes. There is a host of Feynman anecdotes from those who knew him.
―Feynman was half genius, half buffoon‖ - theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson.―…rather as though Groucho Marx was suddenly standing in for a great scientist.‖- C.P. Snow ―He spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself‖ – Nobel prize physicist Murray Gell-Mann
Feynman kept an adolescent nature the rest of his life
Some people have personalities that are hard to discern. WithFeynman little was hidden and what you saw is what you got.
Feynman seemed to have a compulsion to share every detailof his life with others, through his books, lectures, and endlessretelling of anecdotes about himself.
Arline Greenbaum, the love of his life. She was diagnosed with TB just before they got married. His family tried to dissuade him but they did marry and she died after about 5 years together. He was quite devastated for some years. When she died he wrote her a letter thatremained sealed the rest of his life.
As his wife lay dying of TBFeynman read extensively inthe medical literature. Hewas appalled at howunscientific much ofmedicine is. He would have been veryskeptical of something likeacupuncture, which has notbeen rigorously tested andseems to work better forAsians than Westerners.
Bohr, Oppenheimer, Feynman, Von Neumann After Princeton Feynman joined the Manhattan Project to workon developing the atom bomb and moved to Los Alamos, NewMexico.
Because of the top secret nature of the atomic bomb project, Los Alamoswas chosen because of its extreme remoteness – ideal for a secure facility. AsDorothy Parker said, of another place, ―There’s no there there.‖ Even today itis hard to get to, surrounded by national wilderness areas. The community ofscientists and engineers there lived in a hot house of intense activity, trying tobeat Hitler to an atomic bomb. Feynman’s amazing ability, before computers,to calculate and estimate key numbers and his deep understanding of sciencemade him a central figure despite his very young age.
An enormous amount of incrediblycomplex calculations had to be done atLos Alamos as part of designing the firstatomic bomb. Before computers therewere only two alternatives to pencil andpaper calculations. The slide rule wasvery fast but only gave 3 digit accuracy.More complicated ones could handlemore advanced math than arithmetic, liketrig functions and exponents.
Much more accurate was theMarchand mechanical calculator, withvery many motor driven gears. Itcould add, subtract and multiply to 10digit accuracy. Division was not sosimple and required several steps.Very many of these were used at LosAlamos. Still to come was the first trueelectronic calculator, called Eniac,with no transistors but 18,000 vacuumtubes. Every time it was turned on 2tubes would blow out. It could not beused for long before enough tubeswould fail and shut it down. LosAlamos did not want to divert theirresources to this new and complicatedheavy maintenance gadget.
Here is a typical Feynman approach to a problem. Two row boats ½ mile apartare approaching each other. The one on the left is moving at 1 miles/hour, whilethe one on the right is moving at 2 miles/hour. A fly leaves the boat on the left, fliesto the one on the right at 12 miles/hour, instantly turns around and flies back to theone on left, turns and goes back to the one on the right, back and forth as the boatsmove closer and closer and eventually meet. What is the total distance the flytravels? The hard way to solve this involves very many calculations, althoughthey are simple ones. Feynman would have said, instead, that the boats are ½mile apart and are approach each other at 1 + 2 = 3 miles/hour. So they will meetin 1/6 hour or 10 minutes. The fly is going at 12 miles an hour for 10 minutes soit will travel exactly 2 miles. There is no need to calculate all the separate parts ofthe fly’s path to get the right answer. Feynman had short cuts like this for verycomplicated physics calculations and could do some in his head.
While at Los Alamos Feynmanfigured out how to crack safes andwould do practical jokes likeopening top secret safes and leavinganonymous messages like ―I washere‖ – hilarious to Feynman butgave near heart attacks to thesecurity people, who thought it wasa Soviet spy. Ironically an actualSoviet spy at the labs sometimesgave Feynman rides to the LosAlamos hospital for him to seeArline. Later he was caughtsending bomb secrets to Russia.
Feynman’s immatureliking for practicaljokes resulted in manyanecdotes about him,which he would thendelight in endlesslyretelling.
A 1996 movie was made about that time at LosAlamos when Arline was dying, and Feynman wasvisiting her in the hospital every day, after workingall day on the atom bomb project. He told a storythat shows his atheism - Next to her bed was an old clock. Arline toldFeynman that the clock was a symbol of the time thatthey had together and that he should alwaysremember that. Always look at the clock to rememberthe time we have together, she said. The day thatArline died in the hospital, Feynman was given a notefrom the nurse that indicated the time of death.Feynman noted that the clock had stopped at exactlythat time. It was as if the clock, which had been asymbol of their time together, had stopped at themoment of her death. Did you make a connection? Iasked ―NO! NOT FOR A SECOND! I immediatelybegan to think how this could have happened. And Irealized that the clock was old and was alwaysbreaking. That the clock probably stopped some timebefore and the nurse coming in to the room to recordthe time of death would have looked at the clock andjotted down the time from that. I never made anysupernatural connection, not even for a second. I justwanted to figure out how it happened‖.
After his wife Arlinedied Feynmanovercame his shynessaround women andbecame extremelypromiscuous. He gotat least two womenpregnant, who thenterminated thepregnancy.
Feynman was put in charge at the age of 25 of the atom bomb computation group at Los Alamos. He did many calculations in his head and was very good at estimating answers with few if any calculations, just based on his incredible math intuition.His Los Alamos ID badge Feynman and VonNeumann (on right). VonNeumann was probablythe smartest person inhuman history, IQ-wise
Despite the intensepressure to solve theproblems involved indesigning and buildingthe first atom bomb andthe 15 hour work days,Feynman thrived at LosAlamos.
Feynman had anintense work ethichis whole life,plus boundlessnervous energy.
Like most of the people at Los Alamos Feynman did not thinkmuch about the implications of the bomb, until after the war.After the war he went to Cornell and then Caltech.
Geniuses in physics come in two basic flavors. Both are extremely smart so that is a given. Feynman was one type. His profound understanding of physics allowed him to see how to reorganize existing knowledge and theories into forms that would betterfacilitate the search for new knowledge and suggest deep connectionsbetween previously separate branches of physics. He developed new andbetter ways of dealing with difficult computational problems and theyrevolutionized atomic physics. But at the end of the day his role wasbasically that of a type of midwife, although an extremely brilliant one.He himself created very little new knowledge but created mathematicaltools and ideas that made it much easier to discover new knowledge.
Consider the sun and planets. If we assume that everything revolves around us then the motionsin the sky of the sun and planets are very complicated. If we assume that we all go around the sunthen the motions become very simple. But neither is right or wrong, it’s just that one gives amuch simpler explanation. This is not new knowledge about the universe, but about a better pointof view. Feynman was great at these simpler explanations. New knowledge about the universewas that there are more planets – Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto that were not known before.
The other type of physics genius has as anextreme example Albert Einstein. He didnot reorganize existing knowledge andtheories into a better structure. He creatednew knowledge out of whole cloth, by purethought. A contemporary version of this isthe underappreciated genius StephenWolfram, shown here with Feynman. Heexplained much of the intricate structure oflife forms by a new and simple recursivemodel. An out of nowhere new idea and avery successful one. Both types of genius contribute greatly tothe advance of science and we need aFeynman as well as a Wolfram and anEinstein.
The nature of genius ispoorly understood.Where inspiration andbreakthrough ideas comefrom is a real mystery.
Unlike some of hisbrilliant physicistcolleagues, Feynman wasvery practical and wellgrounded in the real world.He did not fit the ―absentminded professor‖stereotype.
“Feynman loved doing physics. I think what he loved most was the process of it. Of calculating. Of figuring things out. It didnt seem to matter to him so much if what came out was big and important. Or esoteric and weird. What mattered to him was the process of finding it. And he was often quite competitive about it. Some scientists (myself probably included) are driven by the ambition to build grand intellectual edifices. I think Feynman--at least in the years I knew him--was much more driven by the pure pleasure of actually doing the science. He seemed to like best to spend his time figuring things out, and calculating.” - Wolfram talking about Feynman Richard Feynman called Wolfram "astonishing.“ Wolfram hadhis first scientific paper published in a physics journal when hewas 16 and still a schoolboy at Eton. He was the youngest ofthe original recipients of the MacArthur Foundation "genius"fellowships in 1981 and the only physicist in the group. Stephen Wolfram
Feynman wasextremely competitiveand part of his pleasurein ―working things out‖was to show that hewas easily the smartestperson in the room.
Feynman had some brilliant physicist colleagues who were alsoNobel Prize material and there was intense rivalry.
―When he was young he had hoped tostart a revolution in science, butnature said no. Nature told him thatthe existing jungle of scientific ideas,with the classical world and thequantum world described by verydifferent laws, was basically correct.He tried to find new laws of nature,but the result of his efforts was in theend to consolidate the existing laws ina new structure. He hoped to finddiscrepancies that would prove the oldtheories wrong, but nature stubbornlypersisted in proving them right. ―- theoretical physicist FreemanDyson
Feynman was not particularly concerned with the usefulness ofscience. He was mostly interested in simply understanding how thephysical world works and the pleasure that he got from it..
―Science is like sex: sometimes somethinguseful comes out, but that is not the reasonwe are doing it. ‖― Richard P. Feynman
Feynman had a brief2nd marriage in 1952.―He begins workingcalculus problems inhis head as soon as heawakens. He didcalculus while drivingin his car, while sittingin the living room, andwhile lying in bed atnight.‖—Mary Louise Belldivorce complaint
Feynman had ason and an adopteddaughter from histhird marriage,which lasted untilhis death.
Feynman was not interested in possessions and lived a pretty simple life
In 1959, in a much simpler time than now, technology-wise,Feynman gave an amazing lecture in which he extrapolated existing technologyand ideas far into the future and correctly foresaw developments that we takefor granted today, 50 years later, like personal computers, swallowable medicalpill-cameras - and anything with extreme miniaturization, like cell phonecameras. The field of nanotechnology was accurately predicted by Feynman.
Feynman talking tohis hero, physicist andNobel Prize winnerPaul Dirac, one of thefathers of quantummechanics. Dirac was a man ofextremely few words,legendarily so, whileFeynman was quite theopposite. They made areal odd-couple.
―In Nature’s infinite book of secrecy a little I can read‖ - the soothsayer in Shakespeare’s ―Antony and Cleopatra‖―I was born not knowing but have only had a little time tochange that here and there‖- Richard Feynman
Let’s take a close look atsome of Feynman’s achievementsin physics. Our pledge to you –This will be painless for thosewho are not science oriented. So let’s dive in!
Learning about quantum mechanics and atomic theory is a lot toswallow in a short time so we will only briefly discuss some verybroad generalities, in layman’s terms.
Feynmanthought that muchof physics shouldbe explainable toa person inordinary English
Feynman wanted to open thedoor to the mysteries of thephysical universe. His quiteunparalled intuition and deepunderstanding of physics ledhim to see that the opening ofthat door was needlesslycomplicated. He made major advances inquantum mechanics in the formof better organizing the existingtheories, simplifying them,making new connections, anddeveloping simpler and betterways to do calculations. Sort oflike a Nobel-Prize level closetorganizer of atomic physics.
When Feynman firstencountered quantummechanics he was quiteunhappy with the ricketystructure of the theories aboutatomic level physics. Some arbitrary assumptionswere needed to avoid certainparadoxes and this offendedhis sense of what a solid baseshould be. He made majoradvances in restructuringquantum mechanics so that ithad a more solid foundation.
By getting rid of some excess baggage and also reorganizing it Feynman helped quantum mechanics achieve its amazing predictive success and it is one of the most experimentally verified branches of physics today. It deals, however,with some bizarre concepts that Einstein completely rejected. Itworks perfectly but he thought that it can’t possibly be the correctexplanation for things. Feynman only cared that it works well and wasnot looking for elegance the way that Einstein was.
...while I am describing to youhow Nature works, you wontunderstand why Nature worksthat way. But you see, nobodyunderstands that.
The macro world,that we are familiarwith, has many ofthe cause and effectrelationships thatwe know. Themicro world andespecially theatomic level worldis governed by lawsof probability, notrigid cause andeffect relationships.
To further complicatethings, the very act ofobserving the atomiclevel world automaticallychanged its behavior.
One problem thatFeynman and othersstruggled with is howto best bridge the biggap between thebizarre microworldand the macroworldthat we know so well. Feynman understoodboth physical worldsextremely well.
―If thats the worldssmartest man, God helpus.‖ His mother, Lucille Feynman, after Omni magazine named him the worlds smartest man
Feynman’s highlypublicized key rolein the governmentinvestigation of thefatal Challengerdisaster was actuallya very tiny part of hiscareer and it used aninfinitesimal fractionof his intelligence.
Receiving Nobel Prize in physics Though raised Jewish and born to Ashkenazi parents, Feynman himself wasnot only an atheist, but distanced himself from being labeled Jewish even onethnic grounds. He routinely refused to be included in lists or books thatclassified people by race. He asked to not be included in Tina Levitans TheLaureates: Jewish Winners of the Nobel Prize, writing, "To select, forapprobation the peculiar elements that come from some supposedly Jewishheredity is to open the door to all kinds of nonsense on racial theory," andadding "…at thirteen I stopped believing that the Jewish people are in any way―the chosen people‖
Feynman, Gell-Mann and I had dinner together and the subject of Israel and the Jews came up. "Why preserve this fossil?" Feynman asked me at the table, referring to the Jewish people. "Wouldnt it be better to speed up assimilation?" As I tried to list the many contributions Jews had made to humanity, including achievements in modern science, he cut me off. "Jews in science? Compare that with the Hungarians! Look what an impact theyve had!" To which Gell-Mann responded: "Dont you know that all those Hungarians were Jews?" And apparently, he didnt.Zsa-Zsa Gabor, The most famous of these Jewish Hungarian physicist geniuses was John Von Neumann. At 6,Jewish-Hungarian he could divide two 8-digit numbers in his head andnon-physicist. was fluent in Greek and Latin; by 8 he had mastered calculus; by 12 he was at the graduate level in mathematics. He had a photographic memory of the highest order and was probably the smartest man who ever lived. He invented the electronic computer, game theory, and was key to developing the atom bomb and many other branches of math and physics.
Feynman did notthink that sciencehad anything tooffer as far asguidance in ethicalaffairs. Science isabout objectivefacts and ethics isabout subjectivejudgments.
God using the ―Smite‖ key There is an interestingtheory about why there issome goodness and beauty inthe world. It is that God is100% evil but only 80%competent. So some goodthings slip through, as hismistakes. Feynman had little interestin speculations like this. Hewas very grounded in what heconsidered reality to be.
―I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientificproblems is just as dumb as the next guy.‖Richard P. FeynmanNonetheless, he does have some thoughts on non-scientifictopics that are worth considering.
―It doesnt seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, thistremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all thedifferent planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all thiscomplicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beingsstruggle for good and evil - which is the view that religion has. The stage is toobig for the drama.‖
―I dont feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in themysterious universe without having any purpose which is the wayit really is as far as I can tell possibly. It doesnt frighten me.‖ During an interview in BBCs Horizon program (1981).
Feynman is walking on a mountain trail with his friend Danny Hillis.Change is good Hillis says, ―I’m sad because you’re going to die.‖ Feynman replies, ―Yeah, that bugs me sometimes too. But not as much as you think. See, when you get as old as I am, you start to realize that you’ve told most of the good stuff you know to other people anyway.‖
In the absence ofanything even close tosolid evidence, Feynmanconcluded that religion isbased on hopes, fears,and unverifiablespeculations. Feynmanhad little patience forreligious statements thatclaimed objective truth.
Anything thatclaimed to be dueto supernaturalphenomena wouldhave to pass arigorous test withFeynman, and ofcourse none did.
Feynman did not end up in his later years as a grumpy man. He was full of alove of life up until his death. Feynman developed two rare forms of cancer,Liposarcoma and Waldenströms macroglobulinemia, dying shortly after a finalattempt at surgery on February 15, 1988, aged 70. His last recorded words arenoted as ―I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.‖
Feynman remained fully engaged with life right up to thevery end, when he died at 70.