Hanging Around With Richard Feynman
Richard Phillips Feynman was an American theoretical physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics for which he proposed the parton model. For his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman, jointly with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichirō Tomonaga, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.
Feynman developed a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams. During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world. In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal Physics World he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time.
He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and became known to a wide public in the 1980s as a member of the Rogers Commission, the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Along with his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing and introducing the concept of nanotechnology. He held the Richard C. Tolman professorship in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology.
Feynman was a keen popularizer of physics through both books and lectures, including a 1959 talk on top-down nanotechnology called There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, and the three-volume publication of his undergraduate lectures, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman also became known through his semi-autobiographical books Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? and books written about him, such as Tuva or Bust! and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick.
Richard Phillips Feynman was born on May 11, 1918, in Queens, New York City] to Lucille née Phillips, a homemaker, and Melville Arthur Feynman, a sales manager, originally from Minsk in Belarus] in those days part of the Russian Empire; both were Lithuanian Jews. They were not religious, and by his youth, Feynman described himself as an "avowed atheist". He also stated "To select, for approbation the peculiar elements that come from some supposedly Jewish heredity is to open the door to all kinds of nonsense on racial theory", and adding, "at thirteen I was not only converted to other religious views, but I also stopped believing that the Jewish people are in any way 'the chosen people'." Later in his life, during a visit to the Jewish Theological Seminary, he encountered the Talmud for the first time and remarked that it contained a medieval kind of reasoning and was a wonderful book.
Like Albert Einstein and Edward Teller, Feynman was a late talker, and by his third birthday had yet to utter a single word. He retained a Brooklyn accent as an adult. That accent was thick enough to be perceived as an affectation or exaggeration – so much so that his good friends Wolfgang Pauli and Hans Bethe once commented that Feynman spoke like a "bum". The young Feynman was heavily influenced by his father, who encouraged him to ask questions to challenge orthodox thinking, and who was always ready to teach Feynman something new. From his mother, he gained the sense of humor that he had throughout his life. As a child, he had a talent for engineering, maintained an experimental laboratory in his home, and delighted in repairing radios. When he was in grade school, he created a home burglar alarm system while his parents were out for the day running errands.
When Richard was five years old, his mother gave birth to a younger brother, Henry Philips, who died at four weeks of age on February 25, 1924. Four years later, Richard's sister Joan was born, and the family moved to Far Rockaway, Queens. Though separated by nine years, Joan and Richard were close, as they both shared a natural curiosity about the world. Their mother thought that women did not have the cranial capacity to comprehend such things. Despite their mother's disapproval of Joan's desire to study astronomy, Richard encouraged his sister to explore the universe. Joan eventually became an astrophysicist specializing in interactions between the Earth and the solar wind.
In 1978 Feynman sought medical treatment for abdominal pains, and was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer. Surgeons removed a tumor the size of a football that had crushed one kidney and his spleen. Further operations were performed in October 1986 and October 1987. He was again hospitalized at the UCLA Medical Center on February 3, 1988. A ruptured duodenal ulcer caused kidney failure, and he declined to undergo the dialysis that might have prolonged his life for a few months. Watched over by his wife Gweneth, sister Joan, and cousin Frances Lewine, he died on February 15, 1988.
When the end was near, Feynman asked Danny Hillis why he was so sad. He replied that he thought Feynman was going to die soon. Feynman said that that sometimes bothered him, too, adding, when you get to be as old as he was, and have told so many stories to so many people, even when he was dead he wouldn't be completely gone.
Near the end of his life, Feynman attempted to visit the Russian land of Tuva, a dream thwarted by Cold War bureaucratic issues – the letter from the Soviet government authorizing the trip was not received until the day after he died. His daughter Michelle later undertook the journey. His burial was at Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum in Altadena. His last words were: "I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring."