by Mark Martin
Twentieth century physics is very often defined by a pair of sweeping, powerful icons of nature, namely, the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics, which were brought into the world at about the years 1915 and 1925, respectively. But tucked between these two dates is the year 1918, and in the spring of that year there came into the world another sweeping icon capable of single handedly defining twentieth century physics, and that icon was, and is, Richard Feynman. He was born into what was, in retrospect, perhaps an intellectual stew simmering to perfection.
2. How to Start a Feynman:
Feynman’s childhood home was in the community of Far Rockaway, just on the southern skirt of Manhattan. Financially his family was neither rich nor poor. They were materially comfortable, but not wealthy. As a young man he had the opportunity to learn to work industriously, but without undo pressure to perform. That in itself would be a theme that he’d rediscover periodically over his lifetime. The rewards for his labors were his own. He would be the judge of his own merit. He was a free man. But what to do with his freedom?
In this direction his father, Melville, would be most influential. It was he who, as the birth of who would be Richard approached, determined that, if the child turned out to be a boy, then he would grow up to be a scientist. (This was male oriented to be sure, but at the time a girl wouldn’t have been reasonably expected to get past “the guards” at the gates of academia. Richard’s younger sister, Joan, got past the guards anyway, and became a very productive astrophysicist.) This was something of an unsatisfied dream his father held for himself. But as things turned out, this wasn’t a forthcoming reality, and by guiding a new son in this direction he could live his dream vicariously. His son did arrive, and Melville dove into his plans with all sincerity. But never would he push Richard along too narrow a path. It wasn’t “you will be such and such.”
Instead his approach was much more intuitive and subtle. He never taught facts so much as questions. He encouraged young Richard to identify not what he knew, but rather what he did not know. This is the essence of Richard Feynman’s style of understanding. By absolutely asking what his ignorance consisted of, he freed himself from the tyranny of conventional wisdom. He learned that it’s entirely possible, and even likely, for a person to live not knowing the answers to important questions. What’s most important for knowledge is the well asked question. The answers will wait patiently for their discovery.
But this is only half of the story of his formative experiences. His mother, Lucille, instilled into Richard a quality that, although less obvious, was nevertheless of equal importance to his future success as an explorer. That critical quality was a powerful sense of humor. Not to be dismissed or taken lightly, it was Lucille’s brand of humor that “empowered” him. While Melville provided Richard the tools to do choose his own path, Lucille taught him how to laugh out loud at self-importance, giving him the all important courage to, “step onto the path”. Both of his parents were a formidable combination to guide him his whole lifetime.
3. Becoming a Physicist and a Soul Mate:
Once his mental ingredients were well mixed as a child, the next phase of his life began, that of becoming, first of all, a physicist, and second, a soul mate. Although placing “physicist” ahead of “soul mate” may seem appropriate in its way, it certainly doesn’t imply that one was of greater personal importance than the other. As a young man in school he found himself who would be perhaps the single most important person in Richard’s life, Arline Greenbaum.
Arline shared, as it turned out, his taste for life, and became his most trusted confidant in all things. The pair were made for one another, and even when Richard forgot himself from time to time, she’d remember for him, and he’d be eternally grateful. As Feynman himself was quick to relate, there was the time when, after they were married, she insisted that he don an apron and chef’s hat to grill some steaks for dinner out along a major highway. He tended to recoil from the very idea, thinking of the embarrassment from the spectacle he’d make of himself. Arline, knowing what Richard would say if the shoes were on the other feet, asked him, “What do you care what other people think?!”, a line that he likely landed on her and others from time to time. He took her advice and cooked the steaks just as she wished, and it would stick with him as some of the best advice ever.
But in the same years that Richard and Arline became inseparable, he also crystallized in his own mind what it was that he was truly to do with his life. As a young man he was good at most things scientific, that is to say, topics of study that are conventionally associated with the word ‘science’: astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc. He was also exceptionally talented in mathematics, even to the point of essentially teaching himself much of the math that he would later make use of on a daily basis. At one point he considered seriously becoming a mathematician, but it didn’t quite click. His intellectual vector had its overwhelming component on the physics axis. It was nature “herself” (as Feynman liked to put it) that goaded the very best questions from within him, and as a physicist he’d be able find out more than in any other field.
Eventually he attended college as a physics major. He finished his first four years at MIT, one of the best schools for physics, then and now, and then moved on to Princeton as a graduate student. During this time in his life he became engaged to marry Arline, which they’d do after completion of his Ph.D. However, Arline at one point started to display serious symptoms of some sort of illness. After some time she was positively diagnosed with tuberculosis, and was not expected to live too many more years. Richard figured that there was only one right thing for him to do, and that was to marry her as soon as possible. He wanted to be responsible for her welfare as much as he could muster. Although his family advised against it because of his unfinished Ph.D., the two were married in a simple civil ceremony.
4. Cracking Safes of One Kind or Another:
It had been known for some time by scientists that there is a tremendous amount of energy trapped in the nucleus of every atom, just waiting to be liberated and put to work. In particular, it was estimated that at the very least extremely powerful explosives could be made from this principle, and work was being done in this direction both in Nazi Germany and, on some smaller scale, in the U.S. But when the U.S. eventually entered battle during the Second World War it was feared that Germany was very far along in the engineering of nuclear bombs. The United States then started its now famous Manhattan Project with the purpose of perfecting nuclear bombs ahead of the axis powers so as to ensure victory before it was too late. Toward this end the U.S. Army established the cloistered research city of Los Alamos, well into the New Mexico desert. The best mathematicians, physicists and chemists were encouraged to join the project and do what they alone were capable of — the perfection of the weapon.
Richard Feynman, then still at Princeton, had secured some notoriety among his peers as to his exceptional talents in math and physics, and the physicist Robert Wilson gently prodded him to join what was considered one of the most vital wartime projects of all. At first Feynman’s reaction was that this wasn’t the sort of thing he’d be interested in, but the thought nagged at him that the Nazi’s might create their own nuclear device first and use it to disastrous ends. So he took the job, moving himself to Los Alamos and Arline to a hospital in Albuquerque for the care of her illness.
During the week he worked on bomb theory, and on the weekends he made his way to the hospital, quite a few miles away, to be with his lady Arline. During this time he acquired what was to become a definitive fascination with safecracking. The various documents generated by the bomb work were often kept in filing cabinets or combination safes, and there was an unspoken, tacit assumption as to the safety of these sensitive and dangerous secrets. Feynman was certain that these measures were far from adequate to safeguard the bomb from the wrong hands, and he set out to demonstrate this by becoming an expert safecracker. Reading books by pros and developing his own methods, he eventually became notorious for his ability to open safes. At one instance, just after the close of the war, he had a rare opportunity to put this talent to use, wherein he managed to open a bank of files which contained every document for the construction of the bomb, thus showing conspicuously the edge on which our civilization sometimes teeters.
In the months just near the end of the war Arline’s tuberculosis advanced to a desperate degree. In July, 1945, just before the very first test of the bomb, she finally passed away due to her illness. Richard was fortunate enough at least to be by her side at the moment. He made his way back to Los Alamos and temporarily put it out of his mind by further immersing himself in his work. The bomb was soon finished and he was privileged to witness the detonation of the world’s first nuclear bomb.
After the conclusion of the war Feynman moved on. He accepted a professorship with Cornell University, but fell into somewhat of a slump. He lost his inspiration and confidence as a physicist, and speculated that perhaps his better days were behind him. So it surprised him to no end that he would get solicitations from competing universities to more lucrative professorships at other schools. Finally he even received an invitation to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. This was something for him to ponder, since the institute was one of the most prestigious academic institutions anywhere. Only the best minds were offered posts there, for instance Einstein, and to him this didn’t make sense since as far as he could fathom he himself was pretty well tapped out. It was with this that one of his personal revelations occurred to him. He realized then that it was none of his concern what others expected of him. Obviously, he thought, they were just making their own best guesses. It’d be their own problem if their guesses didn’t pan out. Suddenly his slump snapped and he regained all of his intellectual vigor. From that point on he promised himself to work on nothing that he couldn’t “play with”. And it paid off royally. Just prior to the war he’d been working on an idea of his for his Ph.D. thesis, having to do with his own new method in quantum mechanics.
The method, typical of Feynman’s approach, had to do with computing the probability of a transition of a quantum from one state to some other subsequent state. In principle, every possible path from one state to the other is considered equally likely, with the final path between being a kind of sum of all paths. This was an entirely new formalism in quantum mechanics, and he eventually adapted it directly to the physics of quantumelectrodynamics, also called QED. For this work he eventually was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, which he shared with Schwinger and Tomonaga, who also independently found their own methods in the same problem.
Feynman also was able to make a breakthrough in the physics of the superfluidity of super cold liquid helium, wherein the liquid displays no frictional resistance whatsoever while flowing. He successfully applied the well known Schrodinger’s equation to the question, showing that the superfluid was displaying what amounted to quantum mechanical behavior at macroscopic scales. A very close relative to superfluidity is the phenomenon of superconductivity, wherein electric current moves without resistance in certain materials at extremely low temperatures. Feynman also attempted to solve this important problem in physics, but this came to be one of his most spectacular failures as a theorist. His efforts in this were in tandem with three other gentlemen, John Bardeen, Leon Cooper and Robert Schreiffer, during the mid to late 1950s. Eventually it was the talented trio who cracked open the essential problem of superconductivity first, although Feynman came in a close second, so to speak.
Another close race involved what is called “weak decay”, which shows itself most familiarly in the decay of a free neutron into an electron, a proton, and an anti-neutrino. Feynman worked intensely on this problem himself while fellow theorist Murray Gell-Mann did likewise. In due time the pair collaborated on a broad new theory of the weak process in a joint research paper which was published just days before a similar theory was presented by fellow physicists Robert Marshak and E.C.G. Sudarshan. The new theory was of no trivial importance, and the work of these four gentlemen constituted the revelation of a new law of nature. For the first time in Feynman’s life, he had been instrumental in changing the very course of humankind’s understanding of nature.
During the 1950s he married his second wife, Mary Lou, but this was not to last for too long a time. It turned out that his feelings for the lady were hasty at best, and they were a mismatch. They divorced and went their separate ways. However, in the early 1960s he happened to be at a professional conference in Europe and became acquainted with a charming lady by the name of Gweneth Howarth, a native of Great Britain. He’d long been in need of someone to fill the loneliness after Arline’s death, and after having surveyed the field extensively, he became certain that Gweneth would be the one for him. She was patient with his eccentricities, yet shared much of his taste for adventure. He managed to get her into the United States with Matthew Sands as her sponsor, and after some time the pair were married. Gweneth, his third wife, was also his last. The pair stayed together for the remainder of Richard’s life, during which they had one child of their own, Carl, and adopted a daughter, Michelle.
From the 1950s onward Feynman was a professor of physics with the California Institute of Technology, popularly called Caltech, just outside of Los Angeles. In the early 1960s there was some consensus among the teachers there that the freshman physics curriculum was badly in need of renovation. Professors Robert Leighton and Matthew Sands approached Feynman with the proposal that he might be just the ticket. But this was no small request they made to Feynman, since it would mean devoting himself full time to the project without significant time for his beloved research. But Richard knew that this was a rare opportunity to make a difference to the emerging younger generation of physics students, and he always had a soft spot for the young and curious. He accepted the job and dove into it without looking back. The new physics course occupied most of the next three years of his life, but it was a labor of love for him, Leighton and Sands, as they earnestly recorded and transcribed every lecture in the course. In the long run, the entire series of lessons was turned into what has since become a classic set of three bound textbooks called The Feynman Lectures on Physics.
Even nearly four decades has not faded the vitality of these works, and they continue to be a staple among both students and experienced professors seeking the valuable insights that lurk within. His first and foremost intellectual interest was, of course, in physics, but there was also something further that brewed in his mind for several years. He was building a curiosity for the nature of art. Art appeared as something of a mystery to him as an adult, as there was nothing clearly necessary driving the appeal which works of art held for human beings. It was obvious, of course, that art did in fact have a satisfying effect upon the human spirit, but the connection itself eluded him. He eventually decided to study the problem from the inside, and took beginners’ courses in drawing and painting. At first he had no particular ability, but in due time he developed into a skilled artist, especially in portrait sketching. He found that the lure of art lay, for him, in the personal satisfaction that his works could bring to others. He continued to practice art along side with physics for the rest of his life.
5. Cracking the Last Few Safes:
Although in the late 1970s he was looking at his 60th birthday, his intellectual form barely showed any age whatsoever, and he continued to make noteworthy contributions to his chosen field. But also at about this time he entered into what has since become one of his most mythic adventures. By chance he had the opportunity to mention to a close friend of his (Ralph Leighton, son of Robert Leighton) that there was a “lost land” of sorts from which he had collected postage stamps as a youngster, but which was nowadays nowhere on the map. The lost land was (and is) the country of Tannu Tuva, tucked between Mongolia and Russia, and since Richard’s boyhood it had been annexed by the Soviet Union and was no longer an independent country.
Nevertheless, Tuva was still in existence in practice regardless of its political status, and it was uniquely isolated by its mountainous geography, making it a tempting object of adventure in Richard’s mind. Richard, Gweneth and Ralph then determined that they would find a way to journey to Tuva and see what few outsiders have seen. To that end they researched all available literature written on Tuva, all one or two volumes of it. One lone professor of Tuvan studies complimented their efforts saying that their work must “double the number working in the field.” So it was very much an uphill struggle just to learn what little was known of Tuva to western society. An even harder climb was in store for them as they petitioned the Soviet bureaucracy for permission to travel to Tuva. Inertia, they found, is not strictly a property of matter.
In the mean time, Richard was to enter into an adventure of another sort entirely. It was discovered that he was harboring a rare form of cancer, growing in the form of a massive tumor in his abdomen. Surgery successfully removed the tumor at the time, but substantial damage had already been done to his internal organs, leaving him weakened. In particular one of his kidneys had been crushed beyond saving. The timeliness of the surgery added time onto what otherwise would surely have been an early death. Still, over the next decade he experienced recurrences of cancer, and undoubtedly the illness was destined to be a fact of life. Never being one to fret, however, he always tended to be cheerfully grateful for whatever time was his, however short it may be.
In early 1986 the NASA space shuttle Challenger was destroyed in a disastrous explosion of its large fuel tank, consequently killing the seven crewmembers aboard. A presidential commission was quickly assembled to investigate the disaster, and one of Feynman’s former students in a position with the government nominated Richard as a member of the commission. Richard, having been asked to join, at first tended to recoil from such a task. He was, of course, suffering from his continuing cancer, and he also preferred to stay out of the obvious political charade sure to be made of the whole affair. But Gweneth, being more objective as to his clear value to the investigation, reminded him of his better self. She reminded him that, while the other members would be obediently chasing their carrots, he was sure to be found in some unexpected province of the network of managers, engineers and technicians involved with the spacecraft, sifting out some critical speck of evidence. This encouragement convinced him to accept the job, and he did, indeed stray from the pack. He discovered that, for one thing, NASA and its major contractors had an unspoken tendency to discourage their own people from constructive criticism of valid safety issues. This was old hat to him, as he’d encountered a similar blind eye attitude about the security of the bomb secrets back at Los Alamos.
As it turned out, a number of low ranking individuals in the space program had reason to expect certain systems of the spacecraft to be a catastrophe waiting to occur, but the internal politics made it improbable at best to expect any important level of remediation. NASA continued to launch its shuttle fleet while sugar coating and even selectively ignoring flight data that told the tale of the Challenger well in advance of its eventual destruction. In particular, the spacecraft launch was assisted by large solid rocket boosters built of cylindrical sections butted together and sealed at the joints with rubber O-rings. There was accumulating evidence from previous flights that the O-rings tended to be damaged in flight by the burning solid rocket fuel inside, even sometimes coming critically close to complete loss of integrity.
Feynman’s inclusion on the commission was the best things that could’ve happened since, not only was he intrinsically inclined to circumvent the chain of authority, but he also was the one and only commission member without a vested interest either for or against the shuttle program. Certain individuals exploited his presence and tactfully fed Feynman information to slowly reveal the O-ring problem. It eventually became quite clear to him that the culprit was to be found in the elastic properties of the rings at low temperatures. For the morning of the fatal launch the weather had produced particularly low temperatures (below freezing in fact), the lowest launch day temperatures ever during the shuttle program. Richard speculated that the rubber rings quite possibly were unable at such a temperature to expand quickly enough at launch to fully seal the joints, perhaps then allowing the extremely hot exhaust gasses to leak past the joint and burn through the large fuel tank filled with liquid hydrogen, thus causing the final destructive explosion.
To test the plausibility of his theory he managed to acquire a section of genuine O-ring of the same type used in the rocket joints. He then found a nearby hardware store and bought a small C-clamp. Back in his hotel room he compressed the sample in the clamp and then dipped it in ice water for a time, dropping its temperature to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point he then removed it from the ice water and unclamped it. As he expected, the rubber remained highly compressed, even after being released, for an unacceptably long time while at low temperature. He now felt confident enough to present this finding to the commission. But he felt that he needed to generate enough impact that the theory couldn’t be ignored or buried, and decided that the best place to reveal it would be on live television the next day, during the meeting of the commission. Per his plan, he took the rubber sample and clamp with him to the meeting and made sure to request ice water. At an opportune moment he prepared the clamped sample in the freezing water and then irretrievably demonstrated the behavior of the O-rings to anyone and everyone with their television tuned in.
The demo did its job very well, as the number of ranking officials had been claiming that the explosion might never be solved. Feynman’s simple, to the point experiment could certainly have been accomplished by someone else. Anyone else, in fact. His experiment showed not just the likely “mechanical” cause of the accident, but also just as much revealed the political cause of the death of the shuttle crewmembers. Anyone might potentially have shown the rubber rings to be the cause of the disaster, but only an “outsider” was free to actually do so. At an official level, insiders were systematically disempowered to pursue the truth.
Anyone who knew Feynman personally knew that he was as much a story teller as a scientist. For years he refined the telling of numerous personal anecdotes of many of his most interesting adventures. On the surface one might’ve interpreted these many stories from his life as being just highly entertaining self promotion on his part, since a typical such anecdote would usually end with Richard as the hero, outsmarting the herd at every turn. In retrospect however he certainly meant much more by these tales. At a much more important level his stories were mythology. In other words, Feynman was of the highest caliber intellectually and morally as well. Over the years he acquired both scientific knowledge and wisdom. He loved people as fellows deserving of a common dignity, and the one way he knew to help humanity was to pass along whatever wisdom he’d been fortunate enough to accumulate, which consisted essentially of recognizing the kind of empowerment he had been fortunate enough to enjoy. His tales were the one gift he could give to everyone, not just fellow physicists, but his continuing ill health made him realize that before too long there would be no more stories. He decided, with his close friend Ralph, to put his very best anecdotes in print. A volume of Feynman’s stories was published in 1985 as Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. Even better than he’d ever expected, the book became a national best seller, spreading his particular approach to life now among millions of readers. Later, posthumously, a second volume titled What Do You Care What Other People Think? also sold very well.
In the autumn of 1987 doctors discovered yet another cancerous tumor, which was treated surgically, but Richard was left still extremely weak and in considerable physical pain. It was only a matter of time before he’d be in the hospital once again. In February 1988 he was admitted to the hospital, where doctors discovered a further complication in the form of a ruptured gastrointestinal ulcer. Before too long his condition worsened when his one remaining kidney finally failed. It was certainly possible to have added a few months to his life by way of dialysis, but he estimated that enough was enough, and chose on his own to forego any further treatments of his condition. Death is a certainty, and Feynman had chosen to take his without undue indignity. He empowered himself even in the matter of his own passing. On February 15, 1988, he at last made a farewell.