Biography by Mark Martin 1.

Prologue: 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.

He finished his first four years at MIT. and he set out to demonstrate this by becoming an expert safecracker. During this time he acquired what was to become a definitive fascination with safecracking. physicists and chemists were encouraged to join the project and do what they alone were capable of -. and on the weekends he made his way to the hospital. wherein he managed to open a bank of files which contained every document for the construction of the bomb. and to him this didn't make sense since as far as he could fathom he himself was pretty well tapped out. then and now. had secured some notoriety among his peers as to his exceptional talents in math and physics. quite a few miles away. and as a physicist he'd be able find out more than in any other field. The various documents generated by the bomb work were often kept in filing cabinets or combination safes. During this time in his life he became engaged to marry Arline. typical of Feynman's approach. Army established the cloistered research city of Los Alamos. but the thought nagged at him that the Nazi's might create their own nuclear device first and use it to disastrous ends. eventually entered battle during the Second World War it was feared that Germany was very far along in the engineering of nuclear bombs. then still at Princeton. After some time she was positively diagnosed with tuberculosis. since the institute was one of the most prestigious academic institutions anywhere. thesis. Richard Feynman. 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. he had a rare opportunity to put this talent to use. thus showing conspicuously the edge on which our civilization sometimes teeters. Feynman was certain that these measures were far from adequate to safeguard the bomb from the wrong hands. This was something for him to ponder.S.D. At one instance.D. in the U. He lost his inspiration and confidence as a physicist. Richard figured that there was only one right thing for him to do. It was with this that one of his personal revelations occurred to him. Reading books by pros and developing his own methods. In particular.D. However. well into the New Mexico desert. Only the best minds were offered posts there. he eventually became notorious for his ability to open safes. but fell into somewhat of a slump. one of the best schools for physics. Just prior to the war he'd been working on an idea of his for his Ph. 4. The best mathematicians. Richard was fortunate enough at least to be by her side at the moment. Suddenly his slump snapped and he regained all of his intellectual vigor. Although his family advised against it because of his unfinished Ph. he thought. every possible path from one state to the other is . At first Feynman's reaction was that this wasn't the sort of thing he'd be interested in. Arline at one point started to display serious symptoms of some sort of illness.S. He made his way back to Los Alamos and temporarily put it out of his mind by further immersing himself in his work. just waiting to be liberated and put to work. 1945. During the week he worked on bomb theory. Toward this end the U. Eventually he attended college as a physics major. had to do with computing the probability of a transition of a quantum from one state to some other subsequent state. they were just making their own best guesses. He accepted a professorship with Cornell University. In the months just near the end of the war Arline's tuberculosis advanced to a desperate degree. just after the close of the war. 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. and work was being done in this direction both in Nazi Germany and. So he took the job. just before the very first test of the bomb.It was nature "herself" (as Feynman liked to put it) that goaded the very best questions from within him. The bomb was soon finished and he was privileged to witness the detonation of the world's first nuclear bomb. and the physicist Robert Wilson gently prodded him to join what was considered one of the most vital wartime projects of all.the perfection of the weapon. and that was to marry her as soon as possible. the two were married in a simple civil ceremony. having to do with his own new method in quantum mechanics.S. and was not expected to live too many more years. tacit assumption as to the safety of these sensitive and dangerous secrets. and then moved on to Princeton as a graduate student.. Obviously. He wanted to be responsible for her welfare as much as he could muster. So it surprised him to no end that he would get solicitations from competing universities to more lucrative professorships at other schools. on some smaller scale. The method. Finally he even received an invitation to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. moving himself to Los Alamos and Arline to a hospital in Albuquerque for the care of her illness. But when the U. for instance Einstein. and speculated that perhaps his better days were behind him. it was estimated that at the very least extremely powerful explosives could be made from this principle. which they'd do after completion of his Ph. And it paid off royally. to be with his lady Arline. she finally passed away due to her illness. In July. After the conclusion of the war Feynman moved on. It'd be their own problem if their guesses didn't pan out. From that point on he promised himself to work on nothing that he couldn't "play with". He realized then that it was none of his concern what others expected of him. In principle. and there was an unspoken.

By chance he had the opportunity to mention to a close friend of his (Ralph Leighton. and he always had a soft spot for the young and curious. In the early 1960s there was some consensus among the teachers there that the freshman physics curriculum was badly in need of renovation. But this was no small request they made to Feynman. and after having surveyed the field extensively. and the work of these four gentlemen constituted the revelation of a new law of nature. He continued to practice art along side with physics for the rest of his life. especially in portrait sketching. but there was also something further that brewed in his mind for several years. Carl. 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. Professors Robert Leighton and Matthew Sands approached Feynman with the proposal that he might be just the ticket. and after some time the pair were married. It was obvious. of course. in physics. and took beginners' courses in drawing and painting. but it was a labor of love for him. At first he had no particular ability. The pair stayed together for the remainder of Richard's life. also called QED. A very close relative to superfluidity is the phenomenon of superconductivity. He was building a curiosity for the nature of art. Mary Lou. But also at about this time he entered into what has since become one of his most mythic adventures. John Bardeen. Feynman worked intensely on this problem himself while fellow theorist Murray Gell-Mann did likewise. and he continued to make noteworthy contributions to his chosen field. he became certain that Gweneth would be the one for him. a native of Great Britain. showing that the superfluid was displaying what amounted to quantum mechanical behavior at macroscopic scales. He found that the lure of art lay. his intellectual form barely showed any age whatsoever. and they continue to be a staple among both students and experienced professors seeking the valuable insights that lurk within. He managed to get her into the United States with Matthew Sands as her sponsor. his third wife. For this work he eventually was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. It turned out that his feelings for the lady were hasty at best. but in due time he developed into a skilled artist. Another close race involved what is called "weak decay". 5. During the 1950s he married his second wife. The lost land was (and . Eventually it was the talented trio who cracked open the essential problem of superconductivity first. The new theory was of no trivial importance. The new physics course occupied most of the next three years of his life. and he eventually adapted it directly to the physics of quantumelectrodynamics. during the mid to late 1950s. as they earnestly recorded and transcribed every lecture in the course. For the first time in Feynman's life. yet shared much of his taste for adventure. Leon Cooper and Robert Schreiffer. and adopted a daughter. popularly called Caltech. His first and foremost intellectual interest was. He eventually decided to study the problem from the inside. that art did in fact have a satisfying effect upon the human spirit. but this was not to last for too long a time. as there was nothing clearly necessary driving the appeal which works of art held for human beings. wherein electric current moves without resistance in certain materials at extremely low temperatures. Cracking the Last Few Safes: Although in the late 1970s he was looking at his 60th birthday. of course. was also his last. His efforts in this were in tandem with three other gentlemen. which he shared with Schwinger and Tomonaga. which shows itself most familiarly in the decay of a free neutron into an electron. In the long run. He accepted the job and dove into it without looking back. He'd long been in need of someone to fill the loneliness after Arline's death. a proton. From the 1950s onward Feynman was a professor of physics with the California Institute of Technology.considered equally likely. but this came to be one of his most spectacular failures as a theorist.G. Feynman also was able to make a breakthrough in the physics of the superfluidity of super cold liquid helium. Leighton and Sands. so to speak. He successfully applied the well known Schrodinger's equation to the question.C. 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. but which was nowadays nowhere on the map. for him. but the connection itself eluded him. and they were a mismatch. Feynman also attempted to solve this important problem in physics. Michelle. during which they had one child of their own. 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. son of Robert Leighton) that there was a "lost land" of sorts from which he had collected postage stamps as a youngster. although Feynman came in a close second. and an anti-neutrino. Gweneth. who also independently found their own methods in the same problem. She was patient with his eccentricities. just outside of Los Angeles. Sudarshan. They divorced and went their separate ways. This was an entirely new formalism in quantum mechanics. However. But Richard knew that this was a rare opportunity to make a difference to the emerging younger generation of physics students. he had been instrumental in changing the very course of humankind's understanding of nature. wherein the liquid displays no frictional resistance whatsoever while flowing. since it would mean devoting himself full time to the project without significant time for his beloved research. Even nearly four decades has not faded the vitality of these works. with the final path between being a kind of sum of all paths. Art appeared as something of a mystery to him as an adult. in the personal satisfaction that his works could bring to others.

In particular." So it was very much an uphill struggle just to learn what little was known of Tuva to western society. reminded him of his better self. the rubber remained highly compressed. growing in the form of a massive tumor in his abdomen. perhaps then allowing the extremely hot exhaust gasses to leak past the joint and burn through the large fuel tank filled with liquid hydrogen. consequently killing the seven crewmembers aboard. Richard. He then found a nearby hardware store and bought a small C-clamp. engineers and technicians involved with the spacecraft. being more objective as to his clear value to the investigation. At that point he then removed it from the ice water and unclamped it. even sometimes coming critically close to complete loss of integrity. As he expected. over the next decade he experienced recurrences of cancer. but the internal politics made it improbable at best to expect any important level of remediation. Still. Richard. Inertia. Richard was to enter into an adventure of another sort entirely. 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. She reminded him that. having been asked to join. he was sure to be found in some unexpected province of the network of managers. while the other members would be obediently chasing their carrots. and one of Feynman's former students in a position with the government nominated Richard as a member of the commission. A presidential commission was quickly assembled to investigate the disaster. He was. In early 1986 the NASA space shuttle Challenger was destroyed in a disastrous explosion of its large fuel tank. he always tended to be cheerfully grateful for whatever time was his. Nevertheless. For the morning of the fatal launch the weather had produced particularly low temperatures (below freezing in fact). during the meeting of the commission. He now felt confident enough to present this finding to the commission. he took the rubber sample and clamp . But Gweneth. however. 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. It eventually became quite clear to him that the culprit was to be found in the elastic properties of the rings at low temperatures. It was discovered that he was harboring a rare form of cancer. all one or two volumes of it. sifting out some critical speck of evidence. for one thing. and decided that the best place to reveal it would be on live television the next day. Never being one to fret. One lone professor of Tuvan studies complimented their efforts saying that their work must "double the number working in the field. thus causing the final destructive explosion. and undoubtedly the illness was destined to be a fact of the country of Tannu Tuva. In particular one of his kidneys had been crushed beyond saving. He discovered that. and he also preferred to stay out of the obvious political charade sure to be made of the whole affair. of course. and since Richard's boyhood it had been annexed by the Soviet Union and was no longer an independent country. Feynman's inclusion on the commission was the best things that could've happened since. suffering from his continuing cancer. making it a tempting object of adventure in Richard's mind. Gweneth and Ralph then determined that they would find a way to journey to Tuva and see what few outsiders have seen. dropping its temperature to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Certain individuals exploited his presence and tactfully fed Feynman information to slowly reveal the O-ring problem. and it was uniquely isolated by its mountainous geography. NASA and its major contractors had an unspoken tendency to discourage their own people from constructive criticism of valid safety issues. is not strictly a property of matter. An even harder climb was in store for them as they petitioned the Soviet bureaucracy for permission to travel to Tuva. as he'd encountered a similar blind eye attitude about the security of the bomb secrets back at Los Alamos. This was old hat to him. and he did. There was accumulating evidence from previous flights that the O-rings tended to be damaged in flight by the burning solid rocket fuel inside. To that end they researched all available literature written on Tuva. This encouragement convinced him to accept the job. not only was he intrinsically inclined to circumvent the chain of authority. but substantial damage had already been done to his internal organs. 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. they found. tucked between Mongolia and Russia. Surgery successfully removed the tumor at the time. Tuva was still in existence in practice regardless of its political status. Back in his hotel room he compressed the sample in the clamp and then dipped it in ice water for a time. 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. In the mean time. but he also was the one and only commission member without a vested interest either for or against the shuttle program. at first tended to recoil from such a task. Per his plan. The timeliness of the surgery added time onto what otherwise would surely have been an early death. even after being released. however short it may be. the lowest launch day temperatures ever during the shuttle program. for an unacceptably long time while at low temperature. leaving him weakened. 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. indeed stray from the pack. But he felt that he needed to generate enough impact that the theory couldn't be ignored or buried.

insiders were systematically disempowered to pursue the truth. Feynman's simple. which consisted essentially of recognizing the kind of empowerment he had been fortunate enough to enjoy.with him to the meeting and made sure to request ice water. spreading his particular approach to life now among millions of readers. which was treated surgically. In retrospect however he certainly meant much more by these tales. Death is a certainty. In other words. since a typical such anecdote would usually end with Richard as the hero. to the point experiment could certainly have been accomplished by someone else. Anyone might potentially have shown the rubber rings to be the cause of the disaster. outsmarting the herd at every turn. 1988. He decided. but he estimated that enough was enough. as the number of ranking officials had been claiming that the explosion might never be solved. not just fellow physicists. the book became a national best seller. At a much more important level his stories were mythology. He empowered himself even in the matter of his own passing. Feynman. and the one way he knew to help humanity was to pass along whatever wisdom he'd been fortunate enough to accumulate. The demo did its job very well. but only an "outsider" was free to actually do so. Anyone who knew Feynman personally knew that he was as much a story teller as a scientist. On February 15. a second volume titled What Do You Care What Other People Think? also sold very well. At an official level. Even better than he'd ever expected. and chose on his own to forego any further treatments of his condition. he at last made a farewell. His experiment showed not just the likely "mechanical" cause of the accident. For years he refined the telling of numerous personal anecdotes of many of his most interesting adventures. with his close friend Ralph. He loved people as fellows deserving of a common dignity. where doctors discovered a further complication in the form of a ruptured gastrointestinal ulcer. to put his very best anecdotes in print. Feynman was of the highest caliber intellectually and morally as well. 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. Mr. in fact. but also just as much revealed the political cause of the death of the shuttle crewmembers. Over the years he acquired both scientific knowledge and wisdom. Before too long his condition worsened when his one remaining kidney finally failed. In the autumn of 1987 doctors discovered yet another cancerous tumor. Anyone else. but Richard was left still extremely weak and in considerable physical pain. posthumously. It was only a matter of time before he'd be in the hospital once again. but his continuing ill health made him realize that before too long there would be no more stories. Later. His tales were the one gift he could give to everyone. In February 1988 he was admitted to the hospital. and Feynman had chosen to take his without undue indignity. It was certainly possible to have added a few months to his life by way of dialysis. . On the surface one might've interpreted these many stories from his life as being just highly entertaining self promotion on his part. A volume of Feynman's stories was published in 1985 as Surely You're Joking.

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