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Richard Feynman: bongo playing Nobel laureate

Updated Tuesday 5th March 2013

Richard Feynman: theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate, educator, practical joker, bongo player, shameless self-publicist, polymath, or simply, genius; take your pick 

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Richard Feynman Creative commons image Icon Fermilab under Creative-Commons license Richard Feynman at Fermilab

Any way you look at it, Feynman was a remarkable and unique individual.

To illustrate this, the BBC have added to an extensive range of books, plays and films about various aspects of Feynman's life with The Challenger, a drama focusing on his role in the Rogers Commission (the crash investigation into the Challenger space shuttle disaster) with William Hurt cast as a very convincing, if a little grim, Feynman.  

By this time - 1986 - Feynman was nearing the end of his life, suffering from two rare forms of cancer, which, although he refused to speculate upon it, may well have been linked to his work as a young physicist on the Manhattan Project.  

This drama has much to say about how scientists and engineers struggle in relationships with politicians and administrators, looking in some detail at how the activities of the commission were at odds with the rhetoric of the US government and the commission itself. 

It was Feynman's role as an educator which first impressed me. Reading his almost verbatim lecture on the principle of least action (volume II chapter 19 of the Feynman Lectures) gave me a lasting fascination with mechanics. Even returning to it now for reference it's hard to put down.  

What's in a name?

Maybe some of this skill was imparted to Feynman by his father, who took him on walks in woodland and encouraged him to watch and interpret the behaviour of the animals he observed. Feynman later remarked that often he couldn't name a particular bird, but he could describe every detail of its behaviour often deducing its purpose, drawing a clear distinction between understanding and the illusion of understanding. In his own words:

“The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kid says to me, 'See that bird? What kind of bird is that?' I said, 'I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.' He says, 'It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!' But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: 'See that bird?' he says. 'It’s a Spencer’s warbler.' (I knew he didn’t know the real name). 'Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.' (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something).” (Horizon, 1981, BBC)

This is vintage Feynman, at once engaging and informative.  

So, what did Feynman achieve that gives him such an enduring public profile? The answers to this question are far too numerous to cover here, some emerged after his death in 1988.  

Technologies of the future

In 1959, he gave a lecture entitled 'There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom', where he suggested manipulating atoms to create machines, anticipating the emergence of nanotechnology by over a quarter century.  

In 1982 he suggested using a quantum computer for modelling quantum systems; quantum computing is now an established field, driven by the potential for a huge improvement in performance for certain applications.

Interestingly, his contributions to quantum electrodynamics (QED) for which he shared the Nobel prize for physics with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga in 1965, included the development of what became known as Feynman diagrams, a deceptively simple method for describing the interaction of subatomic particles. Again, Feynman the communicator.

Communicator

Initially, it's hard to see why a physicist, particularly one who referred to his Nobel Prize as 'a pain in the ...', should be of value to the Rogers Commission. In fact Feynman himself couldn't see it and agreed only with his wife's encouragement. It was an ex Caltech student, William (Bill) R Graham, who had attended some of Feynman's physics lectures and was Acting Administrator for NASA, who invited Feynman to join the commission.  

In fact, the idea seems to have come from Graham's wife who had also attended Feynman's lectures. Overall, it's far from clear why Feynman was invited to join the commission, maybe it was his independence or integrity, although these seem unlikely given the politics. I'd like to think it was simply his astonishing skill as a communicator.

Now, I'm going to finish reading that lecture on the principle of least action... 

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