Richard Feynman

By Christopher Riley
The Telegraph, May 12, 2013

Edited by Andy Ross

A new animated YouTube video has gone viral. In it, the late physicist Richard Feynman waxes lyrical on the science of a simple flower. In the original interview recorded in 1981, Feynman concluded: "The science only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower."

Richard Feynman put the finishing touches to QED, the most successful theory of nature yet discovered. He was born in New York in 1918. While still at high school he won the New York University Math Championship. He graduated from MIT in 1939 and got a perfect score in the math and physics exams for grad school at Princeton.

He joined the wartime Manhattan Project and helped build the atom bomb. Security at the Los Alamos labs was tight, but Feynman picked locks and cracked safes to show up flaws in the systems. The relentless pace at Los Alamos was a welcome distraction for him. His wife Arline died of TB in 1945 and left him bereft. After Hiroshima, he questioned the value of science and thought the world would end in a nuclear holocaust.

He began to hang out with showgirls and prostitutes in Las Vegas. His other release was music: he loved to play the bongos. Suddenly, during lunch at Cornell one day, he rediscovered his love for physics. Aa a student threw a plate into the air and it clattered onto the floor, Feynman saw that the plate spun faster than it wobbled. He went off and calculated the relationship between spin and wobble. This reminded him of a problem about electron spin, described by Paul Dirac, which in turn led him back to Quantum Electrodynamics (QED). Years later, Feynman said it was like a cork coming out of a bottle: "Everything just poured out."

Physicist Sean Carroll sits today at Feynman's old desk at Caltech, in Pasadena. "That was very characteristic of Feynman. It required this really amazing physical intuition, an insight into what was really going on." Feynman invented a new branch of math to work on QED, using little pictures instead of equations. Today Feynman diagrams are used across the world to model everything from elementary particles to galaxies and the cosmos. Applying them to QED, Feynman did work that won him a share of the 1965 Nobel Prize for Physics.

But it was his talent as a communicator of science that made him famous. In the early 1960s, Cornell invited him to give a series of public talks on physics. Feynman's charm and charisma are clear in the recordings. Carroll: "He loved a big stage. He was a performer as well as a scientist. He could explain things in different ways than the professionals thought about them. He could break things down into their constituent pieces and speak a language that you already shared. He was an amazingly good teacher and students loved him unconditionally."

Caltech asked him to rewrite the undergraduate physics course. The resulting Feynman Lectures on Physics took him three years to create, and the three big books are still an inspiring showcase of physics.

In 1986, Feynman joined the commission set up to investigate the Challenger disaster. The space shuttle had exploded seconds after launch, killing its crew of seven astronauts. Feynman fought with managers to discover that rubber O-ring seals in the rocket boosters had frozen on the morning of the launch. At a press conference, Feynman made his case by dunking a piece of O-ring in a glass of iced water. After years of fighting cancer, he died in 1988.

AR The Feynman Lectures resuced me for physics. As I abandoned it for the wilderness of philosophy in 1970, my Oxford physics tutor suggested I read them to find my way back. I did so in 1982, and taught physics with zest for the following 5 years.