Richard Feynman: A Life Of Curiosity And Science

It was World War II and scientists belonging to the Manhattan Project worked on calculations for the atomic bomb. Meanwhile, in one of the buildings, future Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was cracking the combination lock on a safe because doing so intrigued him. That’s as good a broad summary of Feynman as any: scientific integrity with curiosity driving both his work and his fun.

If you’ve heard of him in passing it may be because of his involvement on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster commission or maybe you’ve learned something from one of his many lectures preserved on YouTube. But did you know he also played with electronics as a kid, and almost became an electrical engineer?

He was the type of person whom you might sum up by saying that he had an interesting life. The problem is, you have to wonder how he fit it all into one lifetime, let alone one article. We’ll just have to let our own curiosity pick and choose what to say about this curious character.

Raised To Be Curious

Feynman was born in 1918. He grew up in New York City in the borough of Queens, near Brooklyn, which explains the Brooklyn accent he had all his life.

His mother gave him his sense of humor but it was his father who shaped his curiosity by teaching him the difference between learning facts and understanding them. The family would go to the Catskill Mountains in southeastern New York, where he and his father went for walks in the woods. He father would point out things such as bird behavior and start asking and explaining why they did certain things. This desire for understanding why and applying knowledge to the natural world played a big part in making him such a great scientist.

His younger sister, Joan, also took the path of science, eventually becoming an astrophysicist.

Feynman, The Hacker

Silvertone radio, circa 1937
Silvertone radio, circa 1937

Feynman frequently spoke of the lab he had as a kid, one which sounds familiar to many readers, including yours truly. It was a wooden packing box in which he’d put some shelves. To experiment with lighting and electricity, he’d picked up some lamp sockets from a five-and-dime store and would connect them up in different ways to get different voltages. To protect against shorts, he fashioned a fuse out of tin foil wrapped around a burnt out fuse.

He also enjoyed tinkering with radios and bought a crystal radio set which he’d listen to through earphones at night when going to sleep, something else we’re sure many readers recall doing. He continued his interest in radio by buying them at rummage sales and trying to repair them. His aunt who ran a hotel had him repair the hotel radio and that led to more repair jobs. During the depression, being a kid, his low fee was a drawing card.

MIT And Princeton

At just 15, Feynman taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, and differential and integral calculus, and while still in high school, won the New York University Math Championship.

It should be no surprise then that he was accepted at MIT to major in mathematics. However, he found it too abstract and switched for a while to electrical engineering. But deciding he’d gone too far in the other direction, he settled somewhere in the middle with physics. While at MIT he competed for the Putnam Prize, a prestigious mathematics competition, and became a Putnam Fellow.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1939, he moved on to Princeton University, getting a perfect score on the entrance exams in physics.

The cyclotron at Princeton reaffirmed for him that he was at the right school. It was housed in a single room in a basement. Wires hung everywhere, some with switches attached. Water dripped from valves and there was glyptal on the floor below wherever they fixed a vacuum. The whole thing was very hands on and it reminded him of his childhood lab.

Room 302 at Princeton where Einstein taught
Room 302 at Princeton where Einstein taught, by Deadly437 CC-BY-SA 40

While at Princeton, he was a research assistant to John Archibald Wheeler, an influential theoretical physicist. Wheeler helped Feynman work out problems for the classical version of what became the Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory. He also advised Feynman to give his first seminar on the subject with Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, and John von Neumann in attendance.

Feynman’s time a Princeton coincided with World War II and feeling patriotic, for summer jobs he looked for ways to apply his talents to the war effort. One summer job involved designing mechanical computers to do ballistics, much of it involving gears.

He received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1942.

Working On The Bomb

Feynman at Los Alamos. Robert Oppenheimer is second from the right.
Feynman at Los Alamos. Robert Oppenheimer is second from the right.

Like many scientists, Feynman went to work on the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico, as part of the Manhattan Project.

He had many jobs during this time. To give a few examples, for a time he worked for Hans Bethe during which they came up with the Bethe-Feynman formula which gave the yield of a fission bomb. He also worked on a system for computing using IBM punch cards. The work also involved some travel. He spent time at a uranium enrichment plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee to make sure that the materials weren’t in concentrations anywhere during the processing or storage where they’d become radioactive or explode.

This period of time wasn’t without its adventures though. He found an interest in picking locks and figuring out the combinations for combination locks. For some of this, he got in trouble, or people were warned to not let him near their filing cabinets. His new skills even came in handy a few times when a safe needed opening and the person who knew the combination was away.

Cornell University

Feynman diagram: Space-time vectors for electron-positron annihilation
Feynman diagram: Space-time vectors for electron-positron annihilation

After the war, in October 1945, Feynman accepted an offer to work at Cornell in Ithaca, New York. Some of that work included teaching but also research, in which he was given a free rein.

It was here where he came up with the well-known Feynman diagrams, a pictorial way of describing the mathematical descriptions of the behavior of particles. This was also where he did the fundamental work on quantum electrodynamics which later led to his winning a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

But Feynman grew restless at Cornell and tired of the cold weather so in 1951 he went to work at Caltech in California instead.

Caltech And Stirring Up Brazil

Carnival in Brazil
Carnival in Brazil, by Cid Costa Neto CC-BY-SA 3.0

As a condition of working at Caltech, he spent the first year in Brazil teaching at the Center for Physical Research. He noticed that students were very good at answering the type of questions which involved regurgitating facts, but they couldn’t apply that knowledge to the real world. He pointed this out in a talk he was asked to give toward the end of his visit. This was an example of his observing the difference his father had taught him between learning facts and understanding the why of things.

It was also in Brazil that he got interested in Samba music and took up the frigideira, a metal frying pan shaped instrument with a metal stick with which to beat it. He even played it as part of a band during the Carnival and at private parties.

When he returned from Brazil, he fell in love with Caltech. He especially liked that he could be in touch with people from so many disciplines and spent the remainder of his career there.

To give a small sample of his subsequent physics work, he examined the superfluidity of liquid helium, developed a model of weak decay with Murray Gell-Mann, and developed something called the parton model.

He also influenced future fields of endeavor. In 1959, he gave a talk called There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom which led to nanotechnology. He also helped initiate quantum computing in 1981, the year after it was first proposed by Russian mathematician Yuri Mannin.

The Space Shuttle Challenger Commission

Grey smoke from the solid rocket booster
Grey smoke from the solid rocket booster

What brought Feynman to the attention of many who were not normally interested in science was his involvement on the Rogers Commission which studied the Challenger disaster. The cause of the disaster was the effect that particular morning’s cold temperatures had on decreasing the resiliency of O-rings connecting cylindrical sections of the solid rocket boosters.

It was later revealed that fellow commission member and astronaut, Sally Ride tipped off General Donald Kutyna, also on the commission, about the O-ring problem. He then tipped off Feynman, knowing that Feynman would investigate it no matter the politics or fear of reprisals. With his dedication to scientific integrity, that’s just what he did and performed a simple and famous demonstration at a press conference using a cup of ice water, a clamp, and a sample O-ring.

He also found numerous other problems within NASA, mostly stemming from a disconnect between the working engineers who had a firm and realistic grasp of the issues and management who for some reason didn’t. The write-up of his findings appeared in the report as Appendix F and we have an article summarizing it here.

Teaching And Writing

Feynman book section at Caltech
Feynman book section at Caltech, by DRosenbach CC-BY-SA 3.0

During his years at Caltech he gained fame as a great teacher and is still sometimes referred to as “The Great Explainer”.

Many of his lectures have been collected into books. If you’re looking for a good science read then pretty much anything is recommended, from the very approachable Six Easy Pieces to one you’d expect to be difficult but somehow isn’t, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. The three book series, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, aren’t light reading, though they can be if you’re a real physics geek. They are, however, great to have on your bookcase as a reference. All these books impart understanding, something Feynman was a master at doing

And if you want even more fun, pick up a copy of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, an autobiography filled with not only the usual significant life details but also more antics than is believed one person can have in a single lifetime. A follow-up, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, contains more personal information in the first half, but the second half details his adventures working on the Challenger commission followed by the complete Appendix F which he’d written for the report.

Legacy

Feynman died of cancer in 1988 but left behind a legacy which is just as alive today as it was when he was around creating it. There are many lessons you can take from this legacy: to have fun, be curious, seek out understanding, but as a scientist or engineer the biggest challenge is perhaps to not fool yourself or anyone else, which Feynman referred to as integrity. It’s something he applied throughout his scientific career and it was a guiding principle for him while investigating the Challenger disaster. He put it this way:

I’m not talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

It’s a big legacy, so much so that this article could have been much longer and was even trimmed for length. So if you have a favorite Feynman story or book, perhaps we can spill some of his tale into the comments below.

53 thoughts on “Richard Feynman: A Life Of Curiosity And Science

    1. I always thought it was the Polish mafia that had President Reagan and the Pope shot since President Reagan had just finished speaking at the Polish hall with their union there and also nordic backwards (Alinsky tactic) had the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union dissolved to cause more chaos and create perpetual mafia wars and at least paramilitary warfare with somewhere in the World having a serious military operation going on to divert resources to a never ending no way going to ever be corrective action preventative action scheme slowing dumbing down everyone everywhere to be enslaved again to Customary Law. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Custom_(law)

    2. To me it’s Harry Ferguson as he caused the use of 3-point linkage on tractors and a great amount of automotive innovation. You cannot underestimate his impact on today’s world, having been a cause of the widespread use of hydraulics in today’s world. J.C. Bamford also had a huge impact on todays world. (I’m from a family of farmers and (civil) engineers if you didn’t already guess)

        1. Sorry, here in the UK they’re sort of a big deal (We used to have one of their backhoes and a friend of my Dad’s in the civil engineering industry who was buying a lot of them brought him with him for the factory tour) Look up the dancing diggers as well. I remember when I was 7 my Dad did that thing where they put the whole body of the digger in the air using the 2 buckets with me in the cab. Best memories from back then

  1. My favorite quote of Richard Feynman:

    “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

    That, and his strong push for acknowledging and showing that we might be wrong are, from my experience as a professional scientist, sorely lacking in today’s academic environment. This man knew how to science.

    Thanks for the great article!

    1. I would have to agree. I have also found that most people (but not all) don’t seem to like to be told “it doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

      That doesn’t mean immediately dismiss things outright or that it’s intended as a personal affront either though.

      As an aside, what elastomer other than Viton can you use for o-rings of that size and mission critical status?

      Viton B O-Ring Resilience Study
      “The Challenger accident in January 1986 was attributed to failure of the pressure seal in the aft field joint of the solid rocket motor. It was concluded that the elastomeric O-ring seals did not perform their sealing function because of the low temperatures at launch. Because the Shuttle and Titan O-rings were both made of Viton, there was concern that the O-rings on the segment tang and clevis joints on the Titan solid rocket motor might cause a similar problem. Launch delays that exceeded the assembled segment O-ring service life of 12 months also raised concerns.

      These delays resulted in the initiation of a pad-life extension program and a reevaluation of the O-ring seal. Structural analysis of clevis joint motion had predicted that a gap could be generated at the clevis joint where the O-ring is seated. This gap must be closed by O-ring decompression to maintain the seal during ignition, pressurization, and flight.

      This decompression (determined by the resilience of the O-ring) – must take place rapidly enough to seal the clevis joint in advance of increasing exhaust gas pressure. This report presents data on the resilience characteristics of Viton B O-rings under long-term compression in real time. These data can be used in conjunction with structural analysis of joint motion to predict joint seal performance during installed seal lifetime. The resilience of Viton B O-rings was measured as a function of initial 17% and 23% compression, time under compression up to 3 years, test temperatures of 60 deg F and 70 deg F, and O-ring lot.

      The results showed that resilience of Viton B O-rings is reduced significantly as the temperature is lowered and with increasing time under compression, which is of concern when segments are stacked for long periods of time.”

      In the event you want to research this further, here is quite a bit more about it.
      http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.1017.4657&rep=rep1&type=pdf

      1. “That doesn’t mean immediately dismiss things outright or that it’s intended as a personal affront either though.”

        Absolutely. Its equally pernicious cousin of “Your observations don’t match my established theory, so I declare you a quack and will not take anything you say or do seriously.” is also very dangerous. But that’s not to say that there aren’t quacks out there–Feynman’s statement is simply that we have to take observations seriously and, ultimately, those observations, if shown to be accurate, must by their very nature trump theory. The interface of observation and theory is thus where the interesting work lies.

        1. This “banter” reminds me of a story in one of Feynman’s books.
          While at Los Alamos Niels Bohr’s son asked Feynman to listen to a talk his father was going to give the other physicists.
          Dr. Feynman accepted and after listening to the speech, he gave his opinions on what was said. Then he asked why was he chosen to critique the speech when there were so many famous physicists there at Los Alamos.
          Dr. Bohr replied something to the effect. “You aren’t afraid to ask questions, there are too many who would think it improper to question the statements of a famous physicist, and I want to know if I’m right in my assumptions.”

          1. Reminds me a bit of the story of a certain fictional king who was fooled into walking around naked but believing they were fully dressed because nobody dared say anything to the contrary.

    2. He was, and still is thanks to many interviews, science equivalent of rock star. Not only brilliant scientist but also fine showman that make him such explosive combination. One of my idols and role model.

      I bet in his time also were many academia self-important as…persons, a that times it was useful because stakes were higher with all hands on deck.

    3. I’ll have to save a link to that video. For the next time I see a Facebook article [supposedly by Neil deGrasse Tyson, or other famous scientist] asking “Why are there climate change sceptics?”

      Climate models are great at explaining past events, but don’t always correctly predict future results. So current climate models are “wrong” – in the same way Feynman described Newton’s Laws as wrong [failed to correctly predict position of Mercury].

  2. I had a physics professor who took got his degree at Cal Tech. Feynman was a “fine man” when it came to instruction. He made you laugh so you could remember and not be bored to tears. He reminds me of a Patch Adams of the physical sciences world.

  3. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. -Richard Feynman

    Doesn’t just apply to physics.

    Feynman is toward the top of my list of people I wish I could have met. Feynman diagrams were the result of genius.

  4. Great article. I only have a cursory knowledge of Dr. Feynman, but he and others like him make me think of the age-old question: are people like him born (i.e., genetics) or made (i.e., environment)? I think the answer is both, but what’s the balance? IOW, which one is more important, if either one is, or is it practically 50/50? The article puts an emphasis on his upbringing where curiosity is encouraged and he was afforded many opportunities to satisfy his curiosity, but what if he had grown up in a much more repressive environment? Would his genius have shone through anyway or would he have been a simple ordinary person?

      1. ge·nus
        ˈjēnəs/
        noun Biology
        noun: genus; plural noun: genera

        a principal taxonomic category that ranks above species and below family, and is denoted by a capitalized Latin name, e.g., Leo.
        synonyms: subdivision, division, group, subfamily
        “a large genus of plants”
        (in philosophical and general use) a class of things that have common characteristics and that can be divided into subordinate kinds.

          1. Taxonomy is always skewed with bias and prejudice. Like I recall a physical chemist told me regarding doing undergraduate research in organic chemistry… do the organic chemists really know all the details outside of the cookbook chemistry? Physical chemistry is going to be more quantitative detailed with math to prove what is going on and you’ll actually understand more details.

    1. It depends a great deal on who you ask as to what their opinion will be as there are a lot of layers involved, some of which serve to try to protect one’s fragile ego or sense of well being and everybody is biased. In theory, one can look at twin studies to get some kind of insights into how some parts of genetics can be somewhat excluded as a variable and those sometimes yield very interesting results that far exceed simple coincidence. One could also look at the myriad of animal studies done as well, though that may not translate out quite as well. It also opens up all sorts of interesting philosophical questions.

  5. As so much was written on Richard Feynman in this article and the comments, i’ll add a different kind of “my 2 cents” in the mix:
    About 20 years ago, my father bought me Richard Feynman autobigraphy, mentioned above. Still one of the best books i’ve ever read.Once finished, i realised i found a life role model. Another amazing thing is, how very little actual physics is mentioned in the book. Richard just got around and did so much interesting stuff. A must read for any inquisitive mind.

  6. I was one of the people noting that (almost) all the hero pieces were about women, so I’ll gladly acknowledge this excellent piece on one of the finest scientists in recent history. Let science be science, no matter your specific combination of Xs and possibly Ys!

    1. All the men profiled so far have been familiar to me, Feynman certainly no exception. But I’ve recognized only a minority of the women profiled, despite their seemingly significant contributions. There is definitely a sexist conspiracy afoot, but I don’t think HaD started it.

      1. Wouldn’t it be great to see some articles about unknown yet highly influential men in the sciences too? They’re out there, but harder to find due to the profound shadow cast by the most well known men and women of history.

        How about some articles on individuals like John Bardeen, Harvey Fletcher, and Alfred Russel Wallace. Or even some articles about well-known-without-knowing-why people like John Wheeler, or Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. (We know a lot about what they did; how much do you know about who they were?)

        Lest anyone misconstrue my intent, add Emmy Noether, Barbara McClintock, and Dorothy Hodgkin to that list.

      2. “All the men profiled so far have been familiar to me, Feynman certainly no exception. But I’ve recognized only a minority of the women profiled, despite their seemingly significant contributions.”

        This! We started the series off by thinking of female scientists/engineers who made larger or more important contributions than Ada Lovelace, who gets a day named after her. (No disrespect, but she’s a minor player.) We came up with so many good, relatively untold, story leads that we decided to make it a weekly feature.

        Yet another Newton biography? Yawn. It’s hard, as a writer, to come up with a fresh angle.

        “Here’s someone inspiring who lived an amazing life and made a real contribution to the science/engineering world, yet who you’ve never heard of” is a lot more compelling, from a pure storytelling perspective.

        But who can resist Feynman?

        1. I’d think James Clerk Maxwell deserves an article and same goes for René Descartes (especially now with having modern computing power). There is a list regarding the history of radio that has some contenders also.

        2. No one is asking you to cover the super famous ones like Newton.
          It’s just annoying when HaD ONLY features women or minority scientists in an attempt to right past wrongs.

          How about start with the HUMANS with the biggest impacts like Maxwell or Faraday and go down the list?

          Also, although you cover the non-theoretical scientists, how about the non-scientists… like engineers.

          Not the pretentious ones like Buckminster Fuller or the businessmen like Edison/Musk, but the ones that actually advanced society with their intellectual contributions.

          1. How about the person who discovered the difference between left and right?

            That was a woman.

            And now you’re responsible for that upcoming post.

          2. Most HAD reader know about Newton, hawkings ect, they’ve all been written about to death/had film made about them. It’s the ones I don’t know about that are the more interesting. I

          3. Let’s give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you realize that any list of the most influential “HUMANS” without regard to gender or ethnicity will automatically skew heavily male, because a major feature of humanity for thousands of years has been the systematic effort of men of all races to prevent women — by custom, law, and violence — from contributing to all sorts of work and bodies of thought that men considered to be theirs alone. And when women defied that and did it anyway, to ignore, minimize, and steal their accomplishments.

            The same is true about race/ethnicity, although because other races still include a lot of men it depends a little more on where you start from and where you’re looking.

            Assuming you know that, then either you can’t do the math about who’s most likely to appear in a list of truly overlooked luminaries or you’d rather just ignore it because it makes you uncomfortable.

            I see very few African American, Hispanic, or even Indian scientists/engineers/etc., modern or historical, featured on Hackaday. Do you see members of those groups complaining that HaD writes a few successive articles about white, male, Western people? They have much better grounds for that than you do to say that James Clark Maxwell is somehow “overlooked” in history.

          4. Benchoff – I would love to learn about that person and their thought process…. so long as THAT was the order of the writer’s discovery.
            i.e. “Let’s write about whoever discovered the awesome idea of left/right spin!”
            That’s obviously better than:
            “Let’s write about someone we pity! Oh, here’s one that discovered something kind of interesting.”

            Stephen – Exactly. Because of what crylenko pointed out though, they’re mostly all wealthy. Even today you’ll not find many poor people in science. People like Faraday are the exception. The most notable people also prop themselves up by their personality and self-promotion rather than contributions (e.g. Neil de Grasse Tyson). The quiet ones like Faraday are overlooked because they’re not electrocuting elephants, strapping cars to rockets, or writing watered-down theoretical science books.

            So be it though. Just highlight people for their SCIENTIFIC accomplishments alone, not because of pity or their SOCIAL accomplishments. As a female minority, this patronization makes me feel uncomfortable. Like an adult congratulating a child in a condescending tone. As if the feat would be less impressive if a man did it.

            crylenko – Enough trying to right the world’s past wrongs. You act as if scientific contributions and human-right advancements are the same things. BTW HaD has a higher representation of the ethnic minority articles than white female highlights (based on % of scientific contributions).

            Now regarding WHO complains about a lack of minority articles, it mostly appears to be white suburban kids and college students based on their profiles. Although I’m assuming you fit in this category, I honestly don’t care if you pretend you don’t.

            Individuals like myself and my daughter don’t need other people telling us we’re just as capable as white men or patronizingly saying we’re better. This is counterproductive IMHO.

  7. Feynman was a remarkable man. I have many of his books, but I will always enjoy his autobiographies are the best. I really enjoyed reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”. Both very good reads and give you a deeper look at the person he truly was. My dad got to meet him once at Berkeley, I really wish I would have had the same chance. His views and conclusions on how management negatively affected the Engineering teams at NASA help you really understand how the Challenger disaster was allowed to happen. It’s no surprise why his report was released months after the main report and only as an appendix.
    It took Feynman’s lectures on gravity for me to fully understand the physics behind escape velocity; not just the concept, but the physics.

  8. A hero to me.
    “If your theory doesn’t accommodate all existing observations, and predict something new I can test in the lab, then it’s not worth the coffee to listen to”.
    Does believing firmly in that Feynman test make me a grumpy old skeptic? Or was it simply one of the fastest ways to truth?

  9. “Feynman was born in 1918. He grew up in New York City in the borough of Queens, near Brooklyn, which explains the Brooklyn accent he had all his life.”
    Why not spell out the actual Queens neighborhood? Known as Far Rockaway, it is the easternmost section of the Rockaways, the base of a peninsula adjutting Long Island, stretching from the Nassau County border west to Beach 32nd Street.
    And as to Richard Feynman’s accent? Although he did have a “Brooklyn swagger,” perhaps more accurate to say his manner of expression with all its chutzpah was a product of an ethnically diverse New York City; in essence a vibrant New York accent shaped by his outer-borough upbringing-and not just a Brooklyn one.
    https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/why-theres-no-such-thing-as-a-brooklyn-accent

  10. A curious side note:
    As an aside in a documentary called “Genghis Blues” it comes up that Richard Feynman is a folk hero of sorts among a tribe of nomadic yak herders (no, I’m not joking) in Mongolia because he came to visit them and learn about their multi-tone singing technique and (like everyone he talked to) he made a lasting impression on these folks for being thoughtful, intelligent, down-to-earth and personable.

    https://m.imdb.com/title/tt0187859/

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