A historical interlude Richard Feynman 19181988

Richard Feynman was born in a small town near the outskirts of New York called Far Rockaway. He never lost his unpretentious manner and his strong Brooklyn accent, and disliked pomp and ceremony of any kind. Even when his contribution to quantum electro-dynamics earned him the Nobel Prize in 1965, he accepted it graciously but somewhat reluctantly. He was not interested in prizes: 'I already had the prize — the discovery of such a wonderful law of Nature.'

Feynman lived in Rockaway until he was 17 years old; he then went to MIT for four years and afterwards as a postgraduate to Princeton until 1939. In 1941 he married Arlene Greenbaum, who taught him the motto 'What do you care what other people think?'.

Arlene died of tuberculosis in 1946, but he kept the motto for the rest of his life.

In 1943, Feynman went to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project, the highly secret American atomic research programme, and he stayed until 1946. After that he obtained a teaching post at Cornell University and worked there until 1951. He then spent a short time in Brazil, from where he went to the California Institute of Technology, where he remained as Professor of Theoretical Physics. He married Gweneth Howerth in 1955 and they had two children, Carl and Michelle.

Feynman's great contribution to physics has of course been QED, but that has not by any means been his only contribution. There is practically no area in physics to which he has not brought his unique insight. His ability to transmit knowledge was extraordinary, and generations of students and colleagues were inspired by him. Feynman's lectures were like shows, entertainment from beginning to end. His famous undergraduate course at Caltech was recorded by Robert Leighton and Matthew Sands, and the resulting three-volume textbook is arguably one of the most original and inspiring publications of its kind.

From the time he was still at school, Feynman devised ingenious little experiments on a great variety of topics. One such was to study 'the mind of the ant', how ants knew where to go, and whether they could communicate. He ferried ants, which happened to walk on strips of paper, to and from a source of sugar, high up on an isolated platform. He then brought some of them back to where they came from, and soon there were myriads of ants scurrying about at the

FEYNMAN, Richard P.

Nobel Laureate PHYSICS 1965 © Nobelstiftelsen

FEYNMAN, Richard P.

Nobel Laureate PHYSICS 1965 © Nobelstiftelsen

'ferry terminal' — obviously the news had got around that this was where one went to get sugar. Next, he tried an extension of the experiment, by picking up ants at the terminal, and bringing them up to the sugar, but bringing them back to a different place. The question was, if an ant wanted to get to the sugar a second time, would it go back to the original place from which it had been transported, or to the place where it landed on the way back? The result of the experiment apparently was that the memory of an ant is rather short — the ants remembered only their last port of call. Most went back to the final 'Arrivals' landing place rather than the original 'Departures' terminal.

Feynman was interested in literally everything. When in Brazil he learned to play samba music, and marched in the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. He became good friends with many artists, among them Jirayr Zorthian, who taught him how to draw. He signed all his artwork 'Ofey'; some of it was good enough to be sold and these paintings are now collectors' items. When already quite ill in 1982, he played the part of Chief of Bali Hai in a production of South Pacific.

Mischief was never far from Feynman's mind. At Los Alamos he was working on the highly secret Manhattan Project to separate isotopes of uranium for an atomic bomb. During his spare time he amused himself trying to crack the codes of safe combinations. Soon he was able to open safes and filing cabinets containing highly classified information. He caused consternation when, instead of going through official channels to get certain information he wanted, he opened a filing cabinet and left a piece of paper on which was written: 'Borrowed document no. LA4312 - Feynman the safecracker.'

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