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Feynman Richard .

posted Dec 12, 2014, 11:50 PM by   [ updated Jul 18, 2019, 4:57 PM by Upali Salpadoru ]


Richard P Feynman 

1918 – 1988

Date of Birth:-  May 11th.        

Country of Birth:- United States

“You can encode the whole of Encyclopaedia Britannica on the head of a pin”. So said, ‘One of the funniest fellows who ever juggled a bunch of atoms’. 

 The statement, There is plenty of room at the bottom”, resulted in miniaturized electronic gadgets and Nanotechnology. "This bongo playing Professor, Richard Feynman is the seventh leading physicists of all time". ........ Physics World.


 When his grandfather migrated to US from Belarus in Eastern Europe, his father, Melville, was only 5 years old. Although he had a Jewish origin he was a rationalist salesman that had the scientific attitude. He married Lucille Phillips born in US to Polish parents. She was a primary school trained teacher that assumed duties only after marriage.

1918.  Age 0.

 Richrd’s destiny had been written while he was inside the mother’s womb. The father had declared, “If the child turned out to be a boy, then he would grow up to be a scientist”.nThe child was born in a Manhattan apartment inheriting the intelligent genes of the father and the joyous attitude of the mother.

1921   Age 3 yrs.

The parents were overjoyed to hear Richard voicing the first words.

1923   Age 5 yrs.

 There was a tragic setback for the family. Lucille gave birth to another child who lived only for a few weeks. Richard was showing signs of unusual ability to learn. His father got the child to detect patterns, colours and guided him towards logical thinking.

1927   Age 9 yrs.

 Richard got a sister who was named Joan. Nine year difference between the siblings.

1928    Age 10 yrs.

 He often went to the beach and the bush with his father. They carefully observed how animals behaved and the growth of plants. Father asked the questions and Richard had to find the answers. (The habit got inculcated in him that even as an undergraduate he carried a magnifying glass with which he looked at ants and dragon flies. Even while in the study of theoretical physics for the doctorate he attended a semesters on microbiology.)                   

 In the school he excelled in number but he was just above average in the other disciplines. He often dived into the book shelves of his father. His mother, being a teacher, also may have guided him towards learning although he does not remember as much as the part played by his father.

1928 - 1935   Age 12 to 18 yrs.

 The family changed residence from time to time. Once they were even sharing a big house with a maternal aunt belonging to his grandfather. They maintained a house maid and a house keeper. Ultimately they ended up at Far Rockaway in the Long Island.

 He learned to make a crystal set. He was very proud walking up and down wearing the ear plugs listening to a broadcast. This interest developed into a hobby of collecting radios. He bought old sets and meddled with them. Once in a way, one came to life after connecting a loosened wire here and tightening a tube (valve) there.  He says "the radios were simple at the time. They only had a few parts". Soon his name spread first amidst the kids and later even among the adults as a ‘radio repairer’.

 Once he got a phone call, to repair a radio from a Hotel. “I am only a child”. Richard said. “But you repair radios, right?”    So he went to the hotel with a large screw driver in his hip pocket. He says later, “Any screw driver would have looked large as I was small".The hotel electrician was also there to help him. They noticed a loose connection and soon the radio was working. Richard came back with a few coins, collars up. He says later, “It was very much later that I learned the Hotel belonged to my aunt”. Probably his mother’s sister with whom they were sharing a large hose, belonged to his grandfather.

 He spent the money he earned to equip his home laboratory. He had wired the wooden room  in different circuits so that he could light the bulbs at various intensities. A microscope,  Bunsen burner and a good selection of common chemicals were also among his possessions. At thirteen he started collecting insects.

 Along with a friend, he entertained the neighbouring kids by performing chemical magic such as changing water to wine.  His 5 year old sister was the lab assistant who was hired at 4 cts. a week. Sometimes she became the guinea pig; She had to place her finger in a circuit to receive minor shocks which caused some pain. He also started to teach her maths by giving simple problems. The family on their walks played a game. ‘noticing interesting things’. “You’d see something that you didn’t know before, and you’d look at it and talk about it,”

 Once Richard put his hand in a magic fluid. If by accident the hand caught fire by the ever burning Bunsen Burner. He tried to douse it with the other hand when it also ignited. He ran round and round and the children screamed. Later to find out, it was only a chemical trick which did no harm.  (We refrain from disclosing the secret as a child might try it and set fire to a house. As an undergraduate he tried to demonstrate this and ended up by burning the hair causing much pain )  

 As he became popular as a radio repairer requests came from relations and the neighbours to fix their faulty sets. Very often he could detect the fault quickly. Even when it became difficult he never gave up but continued to struggle. In such cases the customers only complained by offering some ice cream or some other delicacy.

 One day a man who could not afford a technician was taking Richard to examine a set which was giving an unusual noise. On the way he was belittling the boy by asking questions as he did not have much hope for success. Richard found it was making an awful noise at the start. He could not detect any fault. So he walked up and down wondering what to do. The man said, “You came to repair the radio. Now you are walking up and down.  I am thinking”, Richard replied. Instantly he got an idea and changed the order of the tubes. Hey presto! It worked. That man spread the message, “That kid fixes radios by thinking”.

Although his parents did not participate in his science demonstrations the father often discussed riddles, puzzles and the tricks of magicians with the son. When anyone gave him a problem or a riddle going round at the time Richard instantly gave the answer. He could do it as he had heard it before.

 “One day I slept with the earphones, listening to music through a crystal set I had assembled. One night my mom and dad came very, very quietly so as not to disturb me. All of a sudden a tremendous bell went off Bong! BONG! BONG! I jumped out yelling, ‘It worked! It worked!” It was a burglar alarm he had contrived

High school

 Richard was admitted to Far Rockaway High School in Queens, New York for a continuous course after being in a number of elementary schools due to moving of house many times. He was always at the top in Maths and science. He had earned the nick name ‘Mad Genius’ as he never accepted anything from the teachers without an argument.

 There was a smart pretty girl with long hair that attracted the attention of every boy. She had a musical talent and athletic skills. Richard took a little time off from from Maths and Physics to win the girl Arline Greenbaum.

 His father taught him to verify and question prior to accept a dogma or a statement. Richard has applied this principle throughout his life.

 By the time he left Rockaway High School, winning the University Math Championship he was a confirmed atheist. In spite of his outstanding abilities he was rejected by many Universities. Some gave the excuse as his poor grades in humanities, but the main reason was that at the time the Universities could admit only a certain percentage of Jews.

 1935 Age 17

 He entered Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a course in mathematics. When he learned that it offered limited applications, he changed over to Electrical engineering and thereby to Theoretical physics. As the University did not teach quantum mechanics, his pet topic, he studied it along with another student.

 He visited Bell Laboratories number of times. Bill Shockley who discovered the transistor often   showed him round. Richard highly pleased applied for a summer time job. It was flatly rejected for no apparent reason.

1939 Age 21 yrs.

 Feynman received the BSc Physics winning the Putnam Award.

 He wished to follow a doctoral course but Dr. John Slater showed  him that it would be to to join Princeton instead.  Princeton rejected his appeal but agreed to admit him on a special request made by Dr.Slater.

 At Princeton he became a research assistant to Prof. John Wheeler. Feynman decided to work on the energy changes due to shifting of electrons in the atom, an urge he had been harbouring for some time. At the end Wheeler was so impressed and requested him to conduct a seminar on it.  The organizer one day met Feynman  and said,  “The work you are doing with Wheeler is very interesting. So I have invited, Prof. Norris Russel, (astronomer) Prof. John von Neuman,(Math) Prof. Wolfgang Pauli (Theoretical physics)  and Albert Einstein.” “ I turned green.  That was going to be  my first seminar.”

 Unfortunately as Feynman entered Princeton Arline became very ill; diagnosed as TB for which there was no cure at the time. They had decided to marry after he completed his doctorate but when they learned Arline’s life was at stake, they hurriedly got married.  This caused a lasting rift between the loyal son and his mother.  


 When Hitler was exterminating Jews and waging war against the allies Feynman thought of joining the army. Princeton nominated Feynman for the Manhattan project of the US army. Although he was not in favour of developing nuclear weapons, as he knew the Germans would do it if they lay in wait, he decided to participate. Among some of the best scientists in the land employed there Feynman, even without a doctorate was assigned a very responsible task. He was the group leader in the theoretical section and was responsible for taking precautions against a destructive explosion of stored up nuclear fuels. “If his advice was ignored by the Oak Ridge engineers whole complex would have turned to dust long before the Trinity test.”

 When he was at the Los Alamos, Arline was hospitalized in Albuquerque.. As there was a strict censorship on the secret project their love letters were read by the censors. So they often included various riddles and puzzles just to tease them. After counting neutrons during the week he used to visit the hospital on weekends. 


 Feynman was the only one to watch the explosion on 16th of July, without special glasses. He viewed from a distance of 20 km. from behind a wind screen of a truck to keep off the damaging UV rays..

 Cornell and Caltech had been vying to get him. “I felt like the donkey between two piles of hey”. The advanced research activities being conducted at Caltech and the offer of sabbatical year for him to work in Brazil prior to engagement, decided the issue.  Then two emissaries visited Feynman and appealed him to join the University of Chicago. Feynman did not allow them even to mention the salary offered to him saying that he has already taken a decision. Later he received a letter from a friend requesting to accept the offer mentioning the salary which was more than triple of what he were to get. He replied. “ ..With the salary you have offered, I’d be able to get a mistress……buy her nice things…..Then I’d worry about her and enter into arguments. This would make me uncomfortable. I’ll not be able to do Physics………So I have decided that I cannot accept the offer”

Fig.2 Feynman in Brazil. 

 He became the Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cornell University for 5 years. Feynman tried his best to keep his wife in good humour. Ultimately she passed away in 1945 and he could not overcome the grief for a very long time.


 The discovery of Quantum electrodynamics, ( QED,) theory. It is a quantum field theory of the electromagnetic force that holds atoms and molecules together. The theory included a set of diagrams which helped to identify particles in a cyclotron. (published in)


Professor Theoretical Physics.   Caltech


"Feynman gave a beautiful analysis of superfluid Helium using general properties of wave functions and of the space of particle configurations”. V. Parameswaran Nair (City College of New york)

1058  Age 40

 Feynman picked a 24 year old bikini clad beauty from a beach in Switzerland. She was  Gweneth Howarth from UK, employed in a house. After getting to know her he fell in love,

1960  Age 42

He married Gweneth.


 A son was born and named as Carl Richard.


 Noble Prize in Physics for the QED theory..


The second child was born and was named as Michelle Catherine


He explained the QED theory to the public in New Zealand at the Auckland University .


 Feynman was in inquiry panel to investigate the space shuttle disaster; Challenger carrying 7 people exploded in the air. Feynman asked for a glass of ice water.  He put a small piece of rubber material in it, which immediately contracted due to the low temperature.  He pulled the piece out and showed that it didn't regain its original shape explaining what he did he said, “I took this stuff that off your seal and I put it in ice water, and I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it. It doesn't stretch back….. In other words, for a few seconds at least, there is no resilience in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees F. I believe that has some significance to our problem”.

Fig.3 Michelle Catherine.

An anecdote from the daughter. Michelle Catherine.

 When I was very young, I thought my father knew everything. Indeed, a prominent magazine once declared him “The Smartest Man in the World.” Upon hearing this, her mother threw up her hands and exclaimed, “If Richard is the smartest man in the world, God help the world!” My father was the first one to laugh.

Once a student student  asked, “Dr. Feynman, Einstein was one of the greatest geniuses of physics, But, he didn't believe in quantum mechanics--so why should I?" Feynman looked hard and answered. "Nature doesn't care how smart you are. You can still be wrong." 

For more about Richard Feynman......


1. "SurelyYou're Joking, Mr. Feynman"

           By Richard P Feynman .............................ISBN  0-393-31604-1

2. Richard Feynman-Nano Technology

3. Feynman's Talk

4. Feynman Online