|This is my contribution to Round Twelve of ABC Wednesday and again I am focusing on people, some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten.|
His last words probably sum him up best: ‘I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring’.
Feynman was born in New York in 1918, the son of a Jewish Byelorussian car polish salesman.
There was little sign of his future intellect in his childhood – he didn’t speak until he was three – and his father bought him an entire set of the Encyclopedia Britannica to stimulate his son. It certainly did the trick as he had read the volumes cover to cover by his early teens.
His father also taught him the important difference between knowing the name of something and actually knowing about it. Feynman later wrote:
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 about the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts.
Science became the young Feynman’s obsession and he collected springs, tubes, batteries and anything mechanical he could get his hands on to perform his experiments, paying his sister ¢4 a week to be his lab assistant. He became known as ‘the boy who could fix radios by thinking’.
He hated school, of course, except for the Maths Team, and he earned the name of ‘Mad Genius’. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his maths and physics results were off the scale and he achieved perfect scores in both subjects in the entrance exam for Princeton, something not done before or since.
Feynman spent his time at university playing with experiments in his room, trying to work out how ants communicated or the physics involved in setting jelly. Even so, his doctoral thesis was a sensation.
The 23-year-old Feynman had created an entirely fresh approach to quantum mechanics and applied it with great success to describe the interactions of electrons and photons.
Feynman amused himself by teaching himself to pick the locks on the top-secret filing cabinets, or wandering off into the desert to chant and drum in the style of the Native Americans.
He was the only one to witness the testing of the A-bomb without wearing protective glasses, correctly reasoning that a car windscreen was enough to screen out harmful alpha radiation rays. Feynman later regretted his involvement in the project, likening it to tickling the tail of a sleeping dragon.
Feynman moved on to the work that would win him the 1948 Nobel Prize for Physics which he was awarded for again clarifying the work of others, in this case Quantum Electrodynamics which fixed the flaws in the theory. His most important contribution was to describe the motions of subatomic particles using a series of elegant diagrams.
But if his work makes Feynman sound like a dull scientist, he was anything but. He was the best and most charismatic teacher of his generation, believing that if a theory couldn’t be explained to to a non-scientist then there was something wrong with the theory.
He spent the second half of his life teaching at the California Institute of Technology and using science to unravel the practical mysteries of the world.
This was best illustrated when Feynman was appointed to the commission investigating the Challenger space-shuttle disaster of 1986. The prime suspect were the rubber O-rings used as seals between the sections of the solid fuel rockets, but the commission had become bogged down by the technicalities and was avoiding any conclusion.
Feynman cut through the evasion by dipping a section of the O-ring in iced water in front of the tv cameras, making it instantly obvious that the rubber lost its elasticity at cold temperatures, causing them to fail and the rocket to break up.
Not that he was an establishment figure. Away from science, he had taught himself to play bongos in the Brazilian style, held exhibitions of his paintings, experimented with drugs, learned how to decipher Mayan hieroglyphs and studied comparative religions.
He also had a second ‘office’ in a topless bar in Pasadena where he scribbled equations and new Feynman Diagrams on the backs of beer mats.
But these were more than ‘mad professor’ affections – Feynman followed other pursuits because of his aversion to boredom. He once wrote, ‘You cannot develop a personality through physics alone, the rest of life has to be worked in’.
In his final years before he died in 1988, Feynman became obsessed with the central Asian republic of Tuva, its history and culture, particularly the throat-singing. For ten years he played a cat-and-mouse game with Russian bureaucracy to get permission to visit which was the subject of his last book, Tuva or Bust!
His visa finally arrived the day after he died. Below is a film worth watching if you have an hour to spare.
With acknowledgment to the QI Book of the Dead