Heroes of Science…Richard Feynman

The maverick theoretical physicist whose enthusiasm and wit brought science to life

Not many ten-year-olds have their own home laboratory, but Richard Feynman
was not like most people. As a child, he had a natural curiosity about how the world works and an exceptional talent for maths and science. By the time he was 15, he had taught himself calculus, advanced algebra and trigonometry. After studying physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Feynman went on to achieve record marks in the entrance exams to Princeton University’s
graduate programme.

Before completing his doctorate, Feynman was recruited by the US government for the top secret Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Some of the most eminent scientists of the time worked together to create the world’s first atomic bombs, which eventually helped the Allies win World War II. Feynman played a key role in predicting the amount of energy released by the bombs, and pioneered the use of computing machines to carry out the huge number of calculations required for the project.

During his time at Los Alamos, Feynman would frequently test the boundaries of the project’s security measures by picking locks and cracking safes. He became the go-to person for anyone who wanted to retrieve documents from an absent colleague’s safe to work on.

After the war, Feynman returned to academia as an associate professor at Cornell University. It was here he completed his work on quantum electrodynamics – using quantum mechanics to explain the interactions between electromagnetic radiation and subatomic particles – that would eventually win him the Nobel Prize.

The big idea: Feynman’s famous diagrams help physicists visualise particle behaviour

Quantum electrodynamics (QED) is an area of physics that aims to make sense of electromagnetism and subatomic particles. The advent of quantum mechanics highlighted some problems with the classical understanding of how
atoms behaved. QED was an effort to resolve this.

In his typically unconventional style, Feynman approached these issues from a different perspective. Using simple line diagrams, he could bypass a lot of the
complicated equations needed for QED. These ‘Feynman diagrams’ were so effective at visually explaining complex phenomena that they are now used in completely different fields such as galactic evolution. 

With Feynman’s help, QED became the most numerically precise physical theory
ever created. As a result of this accomplishment, he shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics alongside fellow QED scientists Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 89

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