The Telegraph, May 12, 2013
Edited by Andy Ross
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
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.