Scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge of uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and the evil seems inadequate.                 –  Richard Feynman

Poets describe nature in soothing and inspiring language. Philosophers reflect on the human condition in insightful and meaningful ways. Physicists formulate natural phenomena in mathematical and fruitful equations.

Of those who caught the magic of the electrons and protons in profound ways was Richard Feynman (born: 11 May 1918). He studied and taught physics at prestigious institutions, and with some of the most celebrated physicists of his time. As a graduate student he had independently derived the relativistic equation for the electron. He was fascinated by mathematics, including topology. He played with sheets of paper, and made hexaflexagons: geometrical figures of several sides and faces constructed by folding a sheet of paper. He recognized what was later re-discovered as intragenic suppression. He struggled with the problem of the self-energy of the electron, for which he was to find an solution later.

In his mid-twenties Feynman got involved with the Manhattan project. He was among the few who witnessed the first explosion of the awesome bomb that has turned the course of human history. In Feynman’s words, when they saw it all the physicists present “jumped up and down, screamed, ran around slapping each other n the backs,”… Everything was perfect” except for the goal. They were “proud as hell,” and hoped (rightly) that the war  would end soon.  But it was at the cost of countless innocent lives, reminding one of the confrontation in Kurukshetra.  

At Cornell Feynman worked out his path-breaking techniques in quantum electrodynamics. When he presented his (second renormalization) theory to the major players in theoretical physics at an exclusive conference in 1948, Niels Bohr is said to have commented that this young man hadn’t grasped the basics of quantum mechanics: so revolutionary was his idea. More than once, Feynman was ignored because others did not understand his highly original ideas. But he always persisted, and won.  He took the physics establishment by storm, with his path integrals and their powerful computational consequences.

Feynman worked on superfluidity (motion without friction of liquid helium at temperatures very near zero K), elucidated the results of deep inelastic scattering, and helped unravel the mystery of weak interactions..

Feynman’s name is indelibly linked with the diagrams in microphysics which are transparently illustrative of the processes they describe and also valuable in doing the associated sophisticated calculations. [These were considerably improved upon in the 1990s.]They strike those who revel in such matters as sublime modes of penetrating into the deep-down mysteries of the microcosm.

Bright brains function in extraordinary ways. But geniuses create great art and music, science and mathematics, open up new pathways for thought and perception, and make utterly new breakthroughs in our understanding and utilization of the world around us. Such indeed was Feynman. His first love was mathematically enriched physics, but he had  other interests too: like playing bongo drums expertly, acting in the play South Pacific, joining a local samba group playing the frigideira in Copacabana, participating in the Carnival in Brazil, dressing up as  Mephistopheles at the Municipal Theater in Rio, , and teaching himself Chinese.

Intelligence shines bright in accepted modes, but genius strays from the trodden track. So it was that Feynman was unorthodox in his attitudes and approaches. He was blessed with a razor-sharp mind and an uncanny ability to recognize the core of a problem. He was also a practical joker, delightful speaker, and author of some excellent physics texts. He influenced the course of physics, and also physics courses. He contributed substantially to its conceptual framework, and touched the professional and intellectual life of many fellow physicists. He provoked laughter and reflection, the jealousy of some, the wrath of a few, and the admiration of all.

Next to Einstein and perhaps Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman  was  the most widely known physicist of the 20th century. Thanks to his prodigious intellect and eccentricity, his name became a  household word among physicists. Since the 1986 Challenger disaster for which he discovered the O-rings as the cause, and the Nova program about him, his fame became even more universal. Whenever he entered a hall with physicists or students, an eerie silence or hushed whispers would ensue. Looks of admiration would result as if a famous movie star had arrived. There was great affection for this unusual man who was honest to the point of being blunt, serious yet jovial, a master of complex calculations, yet also a prankster. Some wondered, half-seriously, if Feynman was a human being.

James Gleick’s Genius which narrates in detail the life and science of this genius and Jagdish Mehra’s The Beat of a Different Drum which presents in detail the technical work of Feynman, equations and all, are among the many books that are relevant in this context.

May 11, 2016


Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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