Skip to main content

The National MagLab is funded by the National Science Foundation and the State of Florida.

Richard Feynman

Theoretical physicist Richard Phillips Feynman greatly simplified the way in which the interactions of particles could be described through his introduction of the diagrams that now bear his name (Feynman diagrams) and was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his reworking of quantum electrodynamics (QED).

Richard Feynman

He shared the prize with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger. Feynman is often remembered as much for his offbeat personality and lively wit as for his considerable contributions to twentieth-century physics.

Feynman was born in New York City on May 11, 1918. His parents were a considerable influence on him, his father encouraging his inquisitive nature and his mother inspiring his notorious sense of humor. Feynman displayed an early proficiency in engineering and mathematics, which would eventually serve him well when he enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to pursue a degree in physics. During his final year there, Feynman won the prestigious undergraduate Putnam Mathematical Competition. He graduated in 1939, after completing an impressive thesis that described a unique method of determining molecular forces.

Feynman continued his study of physics at Princeton University, where he scored perfectly on the mathematics and physics sections of the entrance exams. The prominent theoretician John Archibald Wheeler oversaw Feynman’s doctoral thesis, in which he applied the principle of least action to various aspects of quantum mechanics. The methodology he used supplanted the wave-based depiction of electromagnetism advanced in the mid-19th century by James Clerk Maxwell in favor of his own approach, based on probability mapping of particles and their interactions with one another in space and time.

While still a student at Princeton, Feynman married Arline Greenbaum, whom he had known since high school. Greenbaum suffered from tuberculosis; the couple took great care so that Feynman would not contract the infectious disease. In this period, Feynman was invited to join the atomic-bomb development effort known as the Manhattan Project. Although initially hesitant, he changed his mind after considering another country might produce such a bomb first. Feynman and his wife moved to New Mexico after graduation. While he began work at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, she stayed in a sanitarium in Albuquerque, close enough for Feynman to visit on the weekends until her death in July 1945.

Hans Bethe, who headed the theoretical division at Los Alamos, made Feynman a group leader, the youngest scientist there appointed to the position. With Bethe, Feynman developed a formula for predicting the amount of energy generated by a nuclear explosive. Feynman also oversaw the overhaul of computer systems used in the research and developed a way to calculate how close fissile material was to reaching a critical state. Later at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, research facility, he helped determine the safest means of storing nuclear materials.

Feynman was as well known at Los Alamos for his mischievous sense of humor as for his scientific contributions. He developed a talent for picking combination locks, common at a lab where research was top-secret. Colleagues often unlocked their safes and cabinets only to discover humorous notes left there by Feynman.

Feynman attended the first successful test of the atomic bomb on July 16, 1945. He reportedly did not wear the protective glasses donned by others, instead watching from behind a windshield, which he believed would be sufficient to filter out harmful ultraviolet rays. The test was the culmination of many years of hard work, but after the initial elation, Feynman, like many others, grew very concerned about the immense destructive power of the atomic bomb.

After World War II, Feynman accepted a position as assistant professor at Cornell University. There he returned to theoretical work on quantum electrodynamics and developed the graphical means of depicting particle interactions that came to be known as Feynman diagrams. In 1950, Feynman left Cornell for the California Institute of Technology, where he continued reworking QED theory but also addressed topics such as superfluidity and radioactive decay. He collaborated with American physicist Murray Gell-Mann on radioactive decay and the associated weak force. Each scientist developed his own model of the strong force. Feynman’s was termed the parton model; Gell-Mann’s more widely accepted model was based on quarks. Despite his alternative model, Feynman did not deride Gell-Mann’s quark model, and when a fifth quark was discovered, he accurately predicted that a sixth would soon be found.

Feynman was an excellent teacher and popularizer of physics. He played an integral role in updating the physics curriculum at Caltech and gave a series of lectures that were compiled into the extremely influential three-volume text, Feynman Lectures on Physics. Other Feynman talks were put into print, resulting in The Character of Physical Law and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. The book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! was a series of interviews with the scientist that appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. What Do You Care What Other People Think? and Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman's Last Journey! came later, the latter after Feynman’s death. What Do You Care included, among other things, anecdotes about Feynman’s work on the presidential Rogers Commission, which investigated the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. Feynman found significantly more fault with NASA management than did most members of the commission; his report appeared as an appendix to the report of the majority.

Not long after completing his work with the Rogers Commission, Feynman fell ill from abdominal cancer. It was his second bout with the disease, which had been successfully treated with surgery in 1980. This time, Feynman refused treatment and died on February 15, 1988. He was survived by his third wife, Gweneth, with whom he had two children.

Feynman received numerous honors over the course of his career. In addition to a share of the Nobel Prize in Physics, he won the Albert Einstein Award, the Atomic Energy Commission's E.O. Lawrence Award, the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal, the National Medal, and the Ørsted Medal of the American Association of Physics Teachers, a prize of which he was especially proud. Feynman’s life has been the subject of several books, plays and movies.