Some of the more serious content I’ve got in the pipeline is turning out rather hard to articulate so it may take a few days for me to get the post out. In the meantime, here’s something about my favourite Physicist!
Richard Phillips Feynman was not only an exceptional Physicist but an incredible man. In the grand scheme of contributions to science, his work must rank among the top of all people in history; he worked on the Manhattan project, finished off the theory of Quantum Electrodynamics, helped to develop the theory of Quarks (and thus helped found the Standard Model), he created one of the most amazing tools for visualization in the history of Physics and did so much other public and private work that would be impossible to list completely. Suffice it to say that although the word polymath had fallen out of frequent use by the time the sheer breadth of his work was recognized, he could certainly be given the title.
Feynman wasn’t just a Physicist though – he was a legend. He was certainly the most charismatic of his peers, and would even stand out in a crowd of the most outgoing people. He was coarse and could be loud, but he was also witty and intelligent. This combined with his extreme literal-mindedness (although not to the extent of Dirac’s legend), he had many accidental “adventures” which provided anecdotes that only increased his reputation for daring. I heartily encourage you to read about them – he published his own memoirs in anecdotal form, and there are many good biographies out there too.
I think Feynman was best immortalised in the following words:
In science, as well as in other fields of human endeavor, there are two kinds of geniuses: the “ordinary” and the “magicians.” An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what he has done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician’s mind works. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber. Hans Bethe, whom Dyson considers to be his teacher, is an “ordinary genius”; so much so that one may gain the erroneous impression that he is not a genius at all. But it was Feynman, only slightly older than Dyson, who captured the young man’s imagination.
At some point I’d love to talk about Feynman the teacher, as well. Yet another component that cannot possibly be done justice in anything less than an entire book!