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Summary Article: Feynman, Richard
from Science in the Contemporary World: An Encyclopedia

Richard P. Feynman, perhaps the most brilliant American physicist of the twentieth century, refined quantum electrodynamics (QED), giving it its modern form. Richard Phillips Feynman was born in New York City, where his father, a sales manager, encouraged his son to become a scientist. Feynman taught himself calculus while still a child and repaired radios during high school for extra money. He earned a B.S. degree with honors in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939. His doctorate in physics followed three years later from Princeton University, where John A. Wheeler (1911–) served as his advisor and mentor. The Manhattan Project recruited him, and his work with Hans Bethe (1906–) led to a formula for calculating the yield of an atomic explosion. Bethe later received the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics. Feynman witnessed the first atomic explosion at Trinity, New Mexico, in 1945. His first marriage in 1941 ended with the death of his wife from cancer four years later. His second marriage ended in divorce, and his third marriage resulted in a son and daughter.

After the war, Feynman taught at Cornell University, before accepting an appointment at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he remained for the rest of his life. At Cornell, Feynman returned to his interest in QED, where he developed a new theory to renormalize quantum electrodynamics, fixing flawed equations that led to infinite results and problems with how to handle the self-energy of particles. Feynman was part of the second generation that refined the theory. Julian Schwinger (1918–1994), a fellow New Yorker, independently developed a similar theory, as did Shinichiro Tomonaga (1906–1979), working in war-imposed isolation in Japan. Freeman Dyson (1923–) showed that the three theories were mathematically equivalent, and the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics was shared among Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga. Feynman’s mathematical notation system for QED was accepted by the physics community over the systems developed by Schwinger and Tomonaga, and his method of graphically drawing particle interactions, in what came to be dubbed Feynman diagrams, was widely adopted.

At Caltech, Feynman worked with Murray Gell-Mann (1929–) to create a theory that explained the weak nuclear force, one of the four fundamental physical forces. Later Feynman worked on the strong nuclear force, another of the four fundamental physical forces, proposing hypothetical particles called partons that make up protons and neutrons. He also explained on a quantum level the superfluid behavior of liquid helium, based on the work of the Soviet physicist Lev Landau (1908–1968).

Richard Feynman, physicist, 1986

(Bettmann/Corbis)

A gregarious man known for his infectious enthusiasm for mathematics and physics, Feynman was widely admired by his peers. He was always ready to seek out his own answers and always spoke his mind. When he was appointed to a panel to investigate the causes of the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, he conducted his own separate investigation and produced a separate report castigating NASA management. Unlike many academics of his stature, he excelled at undergraduate teaching.

See also Dyson, Freeman; Gell-Mann, Murray; Grand Unified Theory; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; Nobel Prizes; Particle Physics; Physics; Schwinger, Julian; Wheeler, John A.

References
  • Feynman, Richard P. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books, 1999.
  • Gleick, James. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. New York: Pantheon, 1992.
  • © 2005 by Eric G. Swedin

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